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As Water Level Falls, Thirst to Drain Lake Powell Rises

The drought inspires environmentalists to push for eliminating Glen Canyon Dam. Page, Ariz., fears that would kill the town.

August 10, 2003|Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writer

TICABOO, Utah — Richard Ingebretsen bounds out of the boat with boyish enthusiasm, his sneakers splashing through the mud puddles and his voice echoing off the red canyon walls.

"That was a waterfall right here," he says, eagerly pointing to a large rock.

The crackling water ahead beckons him, and he pursues it until he sees the small resurrected waterfall in a bend of the canyon wall. He grins, his excitement barely contained.

"The reason we want to drain Lake Powell is because of that," he says, gesturing to the trickle of water.

It is known as the Cathedral in the Desert -- cool canyon walls, a windy stream, sediment-filled puddles and delicate sunlight peeking through slots in the cliffs. For 25 years, it's been under water, and to Ingebretsen, its beauty is proof Lake Powell can return to its past, before Glen Canyon Dam stopped the flow of the mighty Colorado River.

And it is splendid, this breathtaking glimpse of yesterday, hidden in a cove of the lake, like a secret.

The drought that has gripped the West for four years has sucked so much water out of Lake Powell that it is only a little more than half full. A white bathtub ring stains the canyon rocks, a reminder of just how low the water is.

Ingebretsen, 47, relishes the ring, and considers it a motive to just go ahead and drain Lake Powell and decommission Glen Canyon Dam.

He believes it would restore the river to its natural state, and says the dam isn't needed anyway.

Try telling that to the 6,800 residents of Page, Ariz., a tourist-dependent city that officials say would cease to exist if there were no lake. Folks there, and other lake supporters, say Ingebretsen is nuts.

*

Shared by Utah and Arizona, Lake Powell is the country's second-largest man-made lake, more than 186 miles long.

About 2.5 million visitors a year come to fish, boat, sunbathe and explore canyons and alcoves. In the process, they pump $400 million into Utah and Arizona.

And it's those visitors who keep Page running. Page began as a town to house workers for Glen Canyon Dam. The dam, authorized by Congress in 1956 and storing water by 1963, is the dividing point of the Upper Basin and Lower Basin of the Colorado River.

When the dam was created, so was Lake Powell, though it would take 17 years to reach its full pool level of 3,700 feet above sea level. Today, the dam provides power to 1.7 million people in six states -- Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. After leaving Lake Powell, water gushes through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead in Nevada, where it is dispersed to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.

Just after 8 a.m. this day, Joan Nevills-Stavely unlocks the door to the Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. A few doors down, Doug Boston is overseeing paint mixing at the True Value hardware store he owns with his two brothers, one of many mom-and-pop businesses. "I love it here," Boston said.

At the mention of Ingebretsen's name, Nevills-Stavely moans and rolls her eyes.

"They say, 'Wow, wouldn't it be fabulous if the dam wasn't there!' It's such a narrow outlook," she said. "You just can't pick up an idea or a dream like that and go full-steam ahead without regard to what the consequences would be."

Page relies exclusively on the lake and dam for its water and power; the town has no other water source. Ingebretsen suggests the town could just get its water from the Colorado River.

But residents say it's not hard to predict what would happen to Page if environmentalists like Ingebretsen have their way.

It would become a ghost town.

"They have their dream, and we live with the reality," Nevills-Stavely said.

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The movement to get rid of the dam and drain the lake has been around for years but has received more attention as the drought continues to inch down the water level, now down about 89 feet. Last spring, the level dipped to its lowest since 1973, and the Bureau of Reclamation expects the water to continue dropping this summer.

Ingebretsen, president of the Glen Canyon Institute, has been against the dam ever since he visited Lake Powell as a Boy Scout, then returned 10 years later to see canyons overtaken by water.

An emergency room doctor in Salt Lake City and a professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, he founded the institute in 1995, and has made his anti-Lake Powell views his personal crusade.

"It's just my holy grail," he said, proudly wearing his khaki "Damn Dam" hat as he rides in a boat over the choppy waters of Lake Powell.

Ingebretsen argues that the lake is inefficient, losing 1 million acre-feet of water a year because of evaporation and bank seepage; the government's estimate is a loss of about 825,000 acre-feet a year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two average families for a year.

Lost water is just the cost of doing business, the Bureau of Reclamation counters.

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