Opinion: Lake Powell sediment could soon plug the San Juan River

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The San Juan River carries a hefty 55% of the sediment entering Lake Powell, and that mud is piling up.

BIG WATER, UTAH – MARCH 27: Tire tracks are seen in the lakebed of Lake Powell that used to be underwater at Lone Rock Beach on March 27, 2022 in Big Water, Utah. As severe drought grips parts of the Western United States, water levels at Lake Powell dropped to their lowest level since the lake was created by the damming the Colorado River in 1963. Lake Powell is currently at 25 percent of capacity, a historic low, and has also lost at least 7 percent of its total capacity.

Unique hydrology has contributed to this plug, A relatively wide canyon and multiple waterfalls slow down the river, allowing sediment to drop out. Though the San Juan is the muddiest tributary, all the Colorado’s tributaries drop a good deal of mud 100 miles or more upstream of Glen Canyon Dam. The group’s big worry is that without drastic action–draining Lake Powell to let the Colorado River run free—time may be running out for the languorous San Juan River.

Semi-solid mud walls along the river have already been dubbed “the Dominy Formation,” named after the avid federal dam-builder Floyd Dominy. Drought, climate change, “whatever you call it, the Lowest San Juan has re-emerged,” Niehaus said about wildlife in the once-submerged canyon. “I’ve seen river otters, mountain lions, coyotes–even pelicans—but the most astounding aspect is how quickly nature is coming back.” In places, cottonwood trees are 20 feet high, he said.


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