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Lake Powell provides a harrowing visual reminder of a stressed watering system

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year, Lake Powell is going to get a big boost from melting snow. The nation's second-largest reservoir on the Colorado River needs the water. Earlier this year, it was at a record low. So before the spring rise, KUNC's Alex Hager met up with a crew of adventurers to document the historic moment.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: When it comes to Lake Powell lately, it's like the old saying goes - the only constant is change.

JACK STAUSS: I call this the moon zone 'cause it's kind of like going to the moon every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HAGER: Jack Stauss with the Glen Canyon Institute invited this group to come see Lake Powell at the lowest it's been since 1968. He's leading a hike through a narrow canyon with towering red rock walls.

STAUSS: There are ecosystems that thrive in these side canyons, even when they've been dewatered for just, like, four years. You start to see stuff come back on a really unprecedented scale.

HAGER: In the 1960s, engineers flooded Glen Canyon to store water from the Colorado River. Now less than a quarter full, it's a harrowing visual reminder that we built a system for watering the West, and that system is on the ropes. But at the same time, when the water draws back, people like Stauss are celebrating what gets revealed, and you can see that change in real time.

STAUSS: Every time you come down here, it's sort of a different game of steering the boat through stuff - kind of exciting, actually, like a little puzzle.

HAGER: Stauss is piloting our boat around the blackened tips of cottonwood trees just poking out from under water. Len Necefer, founder of the advocacy group Natives Outdoors and a member of the Navajo Nation, is another member of our expedition. He's looking at the messy, muddy delta where the Escalante River meets the reservoir.

LEN NECEFER: It's constantly changing. I think that's the - you know, in a few weeks you'll be able to motor around and go up to, you know, Willow Canyon and all that, but right now it's - yeah, in this, like, sort of crazy zone of transition.

HAGER: As we start to turn the boat away from shallow ground, Necefer says it's a great reminder - as much as humans try to control the natural world around them, even on a huge scale, nature bats last.

NECEFER: Bottom of the ninth and - you know, end of a baseball game, nature is at bat and basically has the final say in what happens.

HAGER: Later, a short hike along a muddy creek takes us through a few patches of quicksand before we ultimately arrive at Cathedral in the Desert. Teal Lehto is on the trek, too. She goes by the name WesternWaterGirl on TikTok, where she makes short videos about the Colorado River.

TEAL LEHTO: Honestly, I'm kind of speechless, which is really funny for me 'cause I always have something to say. But it is gorgeous. It's amazing to me to imagine that this was all underwater, and it will be underwater again soon.

HAGER: We're staring up at Cathedral's cavernous, rounded walls. It's a breathtaking pocket of space in the rock where the sounds of a trickling waterfall echo through the canyon.

LEHTO: I kind of wish there was a choir here 'cause I think it would be really beautiful. Does anybody know how to sing?

HAGER: This waterfall used to look a lot different. Again, Jack Stauss.

STAUSS: People used to just boat right up, like, you know, 100 feet above the waterfall.

HAGER: Stauss and other environmentalists say Lake Powell should be drained. Water should be stored elsewhere, and the full majesty of Glen Canyon should be allowed to return.

STAUSS: But I don't think we should just think that the drawdown of these reservoirs is over. I think we should use the moment to rethink completely how we store, use and conserve water across the West, and I think Glen Canyon should be at the heart of that conversation.

HAGER: Glen Canyon and those who fight for its future will have to wait a little longer. This spring will bring water back to the side canyons and more uncertainty about what will happen next. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in Bullfrog, Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager | KUNC