Lake Powell Decline To Reveal Lost Landscape

The decline of Lake Powell is revealing the long-lost landscape of the Glen Canyon.

Lake Powell—which sits on the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona—is a man-made reservoir formed by the Glen Canyon Dam.

It was formed in 1964. The reservoir, which is the second largest in the U.S., took 17 years to fill due to its size. As it did, it flooded the Glen Canyon, which was one of the most stunning landscapes in the U.S.

Many Native American artifacts were also lost during the flood. Environmentalist David Brower deemed the construction of Lake Powell as "America's most regrettable environmental mistake."

Environmentalists still campaign today for the man-made reservoir to be drained, in order to restore the canyon.

Lake Powell
A stock photo shows Lake Powell amid the Glen Canyon. Bee-Creative/Getty

After its construction, Lake Powell became a top tourist destination. The majority of Glen Canyon's landscape may have been gone, but it generated half a billion dollars in tourism and helped provide water to 40 million people living in the seven basin states.

In 2023, the story is different.

Lake Powell's once thriving waters are declining due to the megadrought gripping the southwest. On February 14, the Colorado River reservoir dropped to a new historic low of 3,522.16 feet above sea level. It stood at 3,521.77 feet as of February 18. This is the lowest Lake Powell's water levels have been since the man-made lake was first filled in the 1960s.

As the decline continues, the Glen Canyon is emerging.

Around 100,000 acres of land—which was formerly hidden—has been revealed as the water levels get lower, Daniel Craig McCool, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Utah, wrote in an article on The Conversation.

So what does the emergence of this lost landscape mean, paired with the declining water levels?

Karl Karlstrom, a distinguished professor of geology at the University of New Mexico, told Newsweek that having rafted the Cataract Canyon—a 46-mile-long canyon within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—in the 1960s, when Lake Powell was first filling, he now notices a big difference.

"[In the 1960s] the lake expanded upstream, it covered, silted in, and seemingly obliterated the rapids in lower Cataract Canyon. But as the lake continues to drop, the rapids are coming back," Karlstrom said, "Likewise, the gorgeous slot canyons of Glen Canyon that were variably filled with water and mud are progressively getting cleaned up by side stream flash flood events and lowered local base level."

The declining water levels present an opportunity for the Glen Canyon to be restored to its former glory. But there will need to be plans in place to manage the landscape as this also presents a new array of challenges.

"As we get to the short timescales that affect our cultures, the discussion needs to re-envision new ways to sustain cities, towns, cultures, springs (our collective way of life). To me, this needs to include a partnership of western science with traditional tribal knowledge about long-term climate changes (they have been through droughts before)," Karlstrom said.

"This type of thinking needs to replace political/ financial thinking and shift towards sustainability thinking."

Firstly, the 30 tribes living along the Colorado River must be taken into account when allocating water. McCool reports that these tribes received no water allocation in the Colorado River Compact, decided in 1922. This means it is even more important to include them in management plans as Lake Powell continues to decline and Glen Canyon emerges.

Sediment is also a concern. As Lake Powell dries, the sediment that has accumulated over the decades will become exposed. The silt contains hazardous materials left over from mining operations in the 1950s. Plans will have to be put in place to prevent it from causing a danger who live downstream.

As climate change worsens and water becomes more sparse, life in the southwest will have to change.

"The fact that it has taken this long to begin to seriously discuss and correct the original overallocation of water that some thought we had in the river system at the time of the 1922 Colorado River Compact shows how our system favors power and money over shared benefits, science, and sustainability," Karlstrom said.

"It is understandable that those with both don't want to part with either, but maybe the present water deficit will be a wake-up call to bring in more voices and seek long-term solutions. It is not that new geological structures will be revealed; rather, I hope that new social/ political/ economic/ environmental/ cultural structures can be forged holistically."

Do you have a tip on a science story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about Lake Powell? Let us know via