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Lake Powell is down but not out

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3 2013 12:35 a.m. MDT

People enjoy a variety of activities at Lake Powell this summer, despite the low water levels

Ray Grass, Deseret News

BULLFROG, Kane County — Lake Powell didn't look so different. The rock near the ramp grew some. The stretch of beach along the western wall was longer. The shoreline vegetation was taller and the marina had moved.

But the bay was full of water, and there were boats of varying sizes rushing back and forth, and many more tied to buoys.

The sign read, "Low Water," which explained everything.

The level is down roughly 110 feet from high water. That leaves the depth at the dam at around 470 feet, with varying depths up lake. The surface area, however, is about half of what it is when full.

That means the bays are smaller and the canyons narrower. To the occasional traveler, it's hardly noticeable. To frequent visitors, it's noticeable.

Thus far, through July and into August, however, the level has remained somewhat stable. In early July, the level was at the 3,598-foot elevation, and by mid-August it was 3,591, meaning inflow was close to outflow.

The cause of the low water is, as would be expected, a drought along the Colorado River Corridor. This has prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to reduce daily flows from the dam directed at supplementing water levels downstream at Lake Mead in Nevada.

The projected level at the end of the water year — September — is 3,586.

But, says Lisa Iams, public affairs officer for the Upper Colorado Region for the BLM, the lake is doing exactly as intended.

"Keep in mind we're in a 14-year drought and we're just under half full," she adds.

"Both (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) share in wet years and share in dry years. One doesn't favor the other. They both operate in balance. It's a fortunate situation."

All this leads to the proverbial glass — half full or half empty. Or, in this case, advantages and disadvantages.

Less surface area, as noted, means smaller bays and narrower canyons. It also means there are more places to dock. The receding water has left miles of fresh beach areas.

Lower water means less habitat for some fish, like largemouth bass and crappie. It also means new vegetation will be able to grow, which will mean new habitat for all fish in the future.

Lower water levels also bring more structure or rocks to the surface. But the lake is still big enough to accommodate any chosen activity, from fishing to boating to riding any one of the water toys.

The lower water levels will, however, require boaters to be more vigilant and cautious in their lake travels.

"With the lower water there are more underwater hazards near the surface. Boaters need to pay attention and stay in the main channel when the boat is on plane. With the lower levels there's more room for error," says Denise Shultz, public information officer for the National Park Service out of Page, Ariz.

As noted, however, the lake is large enough — 186 miles long and several miles wide in places, with 96 named side canyons, some many miles long — it's not difficult for the vigilant boater to go into any of the chosen canyons, bays or coves and play.

Even though the lake is low, it's not at its lowest level. In 2005, it was down roughly 150 feet, but came back to within 40 feet of filling in 2011. Higher releases to Lake Mead stopped it from filling.

Shultz also advised boaters to scout bays and coves for rock structure at or near the surface before bearing down on the throttle.

To help, there are markers on the lake.

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