Record Drought Reveals Stunning Changes Along Colorado River

Jonathan Waterman for National Geographic  23 NOv 2014  www.news.nationalgeographic.com

 

A boat wends its way around the curves of Reflection Canyon, part of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon. The "bathtub rings" on the walls show past water levels. PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL MELFORD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
A boat wends its way around the curves of Reflection Canyon, part of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon. The “bathtub rings” on the walls show past water levels.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL MELFORD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

LAKE POWELL, Utah—In early September, at the abandoned Piute Farms marina on a remote edge of southern Utah’s Navajo reservation, we watched a ten-foot (three-meter) waterfall plunging off what used to be the end of the San Juan River.

Until 1990, this point marked the smooth confluence of the river with Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the U.S. But the lake has shrunk so much due to the recent drought that this waterfall has emerged, with sandy water as thick as a milkshake.

My partner DeEdda McLean and I had come to this area west of Mexican Hat, Utah, to kayak acrossLake Powell, a reservoir formed by the confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado Rivers and the holding power of Glen Canyon Dam, which lies just over the border in Arizona. Yet in place of a majestic reservoir, we saw only the thin ribbon of a reemergent river channel, which had been inundated for most of the past three decades by the lake. We called this new channel the San Powell, combining the name of the river and the lake.

NG STAFF
NG STAFF

We had also come to see firsthand how drought is changing the landscapes of the desert Southwest. Here, judging by the lack of conservation reform, water has seemed to be largely taken for granted. But our recent float suggests that profound changes may be in store for the region. (See “The American Nile.”)

Sweating in the desert heat, we loaded our 15-foot (5-meter) kayaks with two weeks’ worth of food and ten gallons of water—enough to last us two days. Drinking from the silty river or fecal-contaminated areas of Lake Powell frequented by houseboats was not an option (Glen Canyon Recreation Area, which includes the reservoir, is visited by more than two million people a year). The contours of our journey—where we camped, our hiking destinations, and how far we paddled each day—would be defined by the need to find potable springs.  Click here to read more.

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