Page wary of crisis on the Colorado River

Alex Hager KUNC//December 9, 2022

Page wary of crisis on the Colorado River

Alex Hager KUNC//December 9, 2022

Colorado River, Lake Powell, Page, drought, reservoir, water, boating, camping, Bureau of Reclamation
Tobyn Pilot of Page Utility Enterprises looks down toward Glen Canyon Dam. A pipe within the dam pulls water up to the small city of Page, but it needed modifications to keep operating amid dropping levels at Lake Powell. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

Tobyn Pilot took a few crunchy footsteps through the red dirt near the edge of a towering cliff. Pilot, an operator at the water plant in Page, pulled out a hefty collection of keys to unlock a tiny plywood shed just a few feet from the brink. The building is barely bigger than an outhouse, but it’s a pivotal part of keeping the taps flowing in this city of 7,500 people.

“The town’s water comes right through this shack,” Pilot said, revealing a small setup of pumps behind the creaking shed door. “Isn’t that crazy to think?”

Hundreds of feet below, the Colorado River calmly chugged along. It’s here, on the dusty precipice, that water from the river is redirected into homes, hotels and restaurants in this tourist town.

As the once-mighty Colorado shrinks in the hands of a changing climate, communities that rely on it are starting to feel the pinch. Many large cities in the Southwest are well-positioned to weather the growing crisis, but some smaller ones have a perilous front row seat as the diminished river threatens to cut off their water supply completely. Page is one of them.

Pilot pointed down to Glen Canyon Dam, a 700-foot-tall concrete behemoth that looms large in the background.

“There’s a pipeline that’s bored through the cliff of Glen Canyon,” Pilot said. “It comes to the edge, just past us here, and goes straight up into another pipeline that goes up to our water plant.”

That pipe brings water up from the river hundreds of feet below. But the system is under threat.

Page pulls its water from Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, which is held back by Glen Canyon Dam. Inside the dam, a pipe siphons water to Page as it passes from the reservoir to the river on the other side. Drought and steady demand have drained the reservoir to historic lows, putting Page’s drinking water system in jeopardy.

Bryan Hill, general manager of Page Utility Enterprises – the city’s water and electric provider – is tasked with keeping taps flowing in the cliffside city. He grapples with the historic missteps, both recent and decades-old.

“They never anticipated the lake actually dropping down to a level where Page was going to struggle to get water,” he said. “That just simply wasn’t anticipated. That’s why we’re scrambling to make a design mod down there now.”

Hill is referring to an ongoing rework of the pipes inside the dam. If the reservoir drops below Page’s current intake, water would flow through a set of backup pipes known as the “river outlet works.” Originally designed as a channel for extra water during high-flow times, those tubes, which are lower than the existing pass-through, could soon be the only way for water to make it through the dam. Without a fix, Lake Powell could have dropped low enough to cut off Page’s drinking water supply completely.

Colorado River, Lake Powell, drought, water, boats, camping,
A welder inside Glen Canyon Dam works on new pipes to pull Colorado River water hundreds of feet up to Page. If water levels in Lake Powell keep dropping, those backup tubes could be the only way for water to make it through the dam. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

Inside the dam this fall, a team of welders has been working to put together new pipes that will connect Page to those river outlet tubes, making sure water still flows to the city even if the reservoir drops to an extremely low level. The new pipes also will help supply water to the neighboring LeChee chapter of the Navajo Nation.

This is shaping up to be a relatively easy fix. The modifications only cost $60,000 to $80,000, Hill said, and are slated to be finished this month.

“We’re proud of the Reclamation staff at the Glen Canyon Field Division for coming up with this cost efficient, relatively effortless solution,” said Bob Martin, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy power manager at the dam. “And it’s a positive step forward in maintaining the dependability of the area’s water supply during this time of increased risk.”

But a much bigger addition may be needed to give Page lasting peace of mind.

A ‘second straw’

Hill already knows what’s next on the to-do list: add redundancy. A lengthy 2004 report called for the construction of a “second straw,” another pipe upstream of the dam that would carry Colorado River water through hundreds of feet of rock and keep water flowing to Page should anything happen to the current intake within the dam.

But that would be an expensive project. The report, which was authored near the beginning of the two-decade-long megadrought that has thrust the Colorado River Basin into a supply-demand crisis, put a $46 million price tag on that second straw. Page won’t be able to scrape together that much through rate hikes, Hill said.

“You’re not going to get that kind of money out of 3,500 water customers,” he said. “People would just leave.”

Hill thinks the federal government should be on the hook for that project.

Page is on the map only because of the dam and Lake Powell. The city originally was a housing camp for workers building and operating the dam in the late 1950s. Now, it’s a base camp for many of the 2 million annual visitors who come to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to boat around Lake Powell and camp on its shores.

The dam was built and is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, the same agency which published the report recommending a second straw.

“In the mid-70s,” Hill said, “(Reclamation) essentially said, ‘You know what, we really don’t want to run this town anymore. We want to run the dam, but we don’t want to run out of town,’ and flipped the keys to the kids and said, ‘Good luck.’”

Page has requested federal funding but hasn’t received it. This fall, water managers and utilities departments around the arid Southwest got a glimmer of hope that their projects might get a financial boost when $4 billion from the federal Inflation Reduction Act was designated for drought mitigation work in the Colorado River Basin. After that announcement, Reclamation set aside some of that money to pay farmers to conserve water, but also hinted that some will be used to upgrade outdated water infrastructure.

Reclamation officials say they’re still committed to working with Page and the Navajo Nation to offer assistance where appropriate.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, a public radio station in Colorado, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.