Lake Powell

Lake Powell is an artificial lake that crosses the state border between Utah and Arizona, in the United States. It is a reservoir that was created from diverted water from the Colorado River, one of the largest rivers in the area. It is the second-largest constructed reservoir behind Lake Mead, which was also formed from the Colorado River. The lake has a surface area of approximately 161,390 acres, and measures 40 kilometers across. It reaches a maximum depth of 178 meters, though on average it is around 40 meters deep.

The lake itself covers areas in the Saun Juan, Garfield and Kane counties of south Utah, and ventures into a small section of north Arizona, in Coconino County, including the Hite Crossing Bridge.

History

Lake Powell is named after a civil war veteran named John Wesley Powell. He was known for having explored large sections of the Colorado River in 1869 on a series of small wooden boats. The lake itself was created in September of 1963, and is managed by the national park service.

Construction

Lake Powell
Alstrom Point, Lake Powell, Page, Arizona.

Lake Powell derives from the Colorado River, but was created by intentionally flooding the Glen Canyon. By adjusting the outflow of the Glen Canyon Dam, water was allowed to flood the canyon and basins, filling the reservoir that then became Lake Powell. Several lakes in the area were created in a similar way, by directing the flow of the Colorado River.

Construction began with the first demolition blast in 1956, which started the process of clearing tunnels to divert the flow of the river. By 1959 water began to flow through these tunnels, and work on the dams began. Over the next four years, concrete was poured and dams were constructed in order to complete the basin which would become the lake reservoir. Construction finally ended in September of 1963. It then took 16 years for the lake to fully fill, reaching its optimal level of 1,100 meters in 1980.

Purpose And Recreation

Lake Powell
Rainbow Bridge Cruise at Lake Powell.

Lake Powell is used as a water storage basin, for the upper states of the Colorado River Compact - namely New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The lake has also become a popular tourist destination, and receives some two million visitors annually. It is known for its impressive scenery, distinct landmarks, and variety of outdoor activities. Water activities have historically been especially popular on the lake, and rafting tours and trips were common, especially in Horseshoe Bend. Additionally Lake Powell has an abundance of houseboats, which can be rented out for short and long term stays. Lake Powell Marina caters to the many water-sport enthusiasts that travel to Lake Powell every year, however the lake has experienced some setbacks to some of these recreational activities in recent years.

Threats To The Lake

Lake Powell
Dried up lake bed of Lake Powell. Climate change is driving the changes in the water level of the reservoir.

Unfortunately the environment of Lake Powell is under threat. The water level in the reservoir reached an all-time low in 2021. Researchers expect that the water levels will only continue to decline as the year stretches on. The primary cause of the water decline is climate change, which is causing widespread drought across the United States. 

This not only affects recreational activities on the lake, but also means that the amount of water available for users of any reservoir along the Colorado River Basin will be significantly decreased. Increasing temperatures and a lack of precipitation have led to harsher and more sustained droughts in the area, and throughout the western United States, impacting not only Lake Powell but several other reservoirs and natural lakes in the area.

Lake Powell
A carp fish in Lake Powell.

One of the other threats to the natural ecosystem of Lake Powell is the increase in invasive species. One of the most destructive invasive species which have caused problems in many North American waters are zebra mussels and Quagga mussels. These small, hard-shelled crustaceans may seem harmless, but they can be a menace that completely throw off a food chain or ecosystem’s delicate balance. 

These mussels invade new bodies of water by attaching to the bottoms of boats, and being transported to new areas when that boat enters new waters. Once either of these species enter a new environment, they multiply quickly, and feed off of zooplankton and algae in those waters. This means that other native species that relied on those food sources are threatened, or can even die out as their food sources are depleted. 

The mussels can also be destructive to the surfaces they attach to. They not only pose a threat to boats, but to canyon walls, dams, and reservoir structures. 

Understanding how climate change and human activity impacts these lakes and ecosystems can help prevent further damage to these much-needed resources and environments. Whether they are human-made reservoirs or natural lakes, looking at the bigger picture will allow for the longevity  of Lake Powell and other lakes like it.

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