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Lake Powell is down but not out

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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. – Denise Shultz

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.

Buoys — green and black — indicate mileage points and the main channel or deepest part of the lake at that point. There are also red buoys showing mileage up lake from the dam … roughly six miles to Wahweap, 18 to Padre Bay, 50 miles to Rainbow Bridge, 95 to Bullfrog Bay, 120 to Good Hope Bay and 140 to Hite.

The lower water level has also uncovered heretofore forgotten wonders, such as Rock Creek Canyon, Clear Creek Canyon, Cathedral in the Desert and Anasazi Canyon.

In a cove at Rock Creek there is an arch near the water level now that allows a small craft to pass under and float in a 100-foot dip in the rock. A few years back it was buried by water. It's located near buoy No. 36.

Cathedral in the Desert is a three-sided grotto. Most years it's flooded. It is considered one of the most spectacular rock formations in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is located in Clear Creek Canyon at buoy No. 69.

Anasazi Canyon features a double arch that can only be seen at low water. The canyon is located at buoy No. 52.

There are, of course, other coves, slot canyons and secluded bays to explore on a lake reported to have more shoreline — more than 2,000 miles — than the entire West Coast.

With schools starting and visitation slowing, there are some inherent advantages to lake visits as fall begins to set in.

Fall colors are more vivid because of the angle of the sun and the reflections off the water imaging the rich canyon walls and contrasting green vegetations and red sandy beaches.

It is also a time when the lake concessionaires begin to offer off-season deals.

For example, explains Cathy McKeever, director of sales and marketing for ARAMARK, the lake's main concessionaire, the company is offering its deluxe 75-foot Excursion with, among other things, five bedrooms, hot tub and satellite TV for three nights and four days for $1,999. During the summer season it rents for $9,000 for the four days.

Another program involves its 46-foot Voyager for two nights and three days for $799. During the summer season it rents for $2,230 for three days.

For more information on Lake Powell, visit www.lakepowell.com.

It's true the lake level is down and it presents some challenges. It's also true the lake is large enough and still holds enough water to uphold its reputation as Utah's No. 1 vacation spot.