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Opinion: Is Lake Powell an example of climate change danger? Not entirely

Lake Powell’s low levels may be following the patterns of history, and there could be benefits we are missing among the negatives of climate change

SHARE Opinion: Is Lake Powell an example of climate change danger? Not entirely
Glen Canyon Dam on a sunny day with Lake Powell behind it. The rocky banks of Lake Powell show evidence of higher waterlines when water volume was greater.

The Glen Canyon Dam is pictured in Page, Ariz., on Sunday, March 28, 2021. The dam blocks off Lake Powell’s waters for Southern California to use. Drought and lower water levels are causing problems.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When Hoover Dam was built near Las Vegas in the 1930s creating Lake Mead, and when Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1950s and ’60s creating Lake Powell, the western United States had for decades been subjected to a wet weather cycle which regularly caused western rivers to flood. This cycle resulted in the building of hundreds of dams to both try and control the flooding, and run the plentiful water out onto the arid land for irrigation. 

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is a unique flood prevention example. It has no outlet, and the water in the lake rose to such levels that it required the installation of huge natural gas-fired pumps to pump the water far out into the desert and prevent the lake from flooding parts of Salt Lake City. Ironically, at the same time the southern states of Oklahoma and Kansas were in severe drought — the dust bowl of the 1930s — which caused people to abandon their land and move west where there was plenty of water to pasture cattle and grow crops.

Then, in the 21st century, a dust bowl type drought came west. Western rivers are now drying up. As noted in the article “When the desert runs dry,” the Colorado River water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead has been so reduced that they may no longer be able to generate power and meet Southern California’s domestic water needs. 

And now the Great Salt Lake is disappearing. Someday it may be entirely gone. But during this same western drought period, the upper Midwest is being flooded: In 2019 Michigan had the most precipitation — rain and snow — in 100 years.  

So, while the world’s climate constantly varies at different locations and times, science demonstrates that the world is getting warmer and wetter coming out of the most recent ice age — known as the Little Ice Age — beginning about 200 years ago, long before any human caused carbon dioxide buildup. Satellite photographs taken of the Earth since 1980 show that the Earth is getting greener with more vegetation. What could cause the increased vegetation? Two things: extended growing seasons resulting from a warmer world climate which causes more moisture to evaporate off the oceans, increasing rain and reducing drought; and increased levels of carbon dioxide which enhance vegetation growth. For plants, carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer. More carbon dioxide produces more growth. Less carbon dioxide means less growth. Without it plants simply can’t grow.  

Vegetation is an important source of food for humans and the animals we rely on for our protein. The world population has increased 400% in just one century, from 2 billion to 8 billion. The United Nations has projected that an additional 3 billion may come before the end of this century. Feeding those additional people and animals will require more vegetation. To produce more will take a warmer climate (longer growing seasons), a wetter climate (less drought), and higher levels of carbon dioxide, nature’s fertilizer.   

We are regularly admonished to “follow the science.” What “the best science” could be telling us is that a warmer climate combined with higher carbon dioxide levels will produce more food, which will be necessary to feed the increasing population in this century. We should “follow the best science”!

Robert E. Bakes is a former Idaho Supreme Court justice. He served as chief justice for four years before retiring and now lives in Eagle, Idaho.