Recreation rebounds at Lake Powell as visitors find new opportunities in shallow waters

PAGE, Ariz. — Recreation is picking up again in Glen Canyon as water flows from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell.

A pair of Kayakers return from their journey through Antelope Point, Page, AZ | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

As of June 16, the National Park Service said in a press release that Lake Powell’s water level had risen to 3,537 feet. That’s a 12-foot increase from the previous measurement of 3,525.

And it couldn’t come too soon for Dan Hattabaugh, who, along with his wife, Shelby, owns and runs Paddle Lake Powell. Business was jumping when St. George News visited June 9, but they’ve seen ups and downs in the three years since they went into business together.

Situated on the docks at Antelope Point Marina, Hattabaugh said that he moved their business from the public launch ramp to Antelope Point after water levels dipped too low.

“We noticed that our customers were struggling to lug their kayaks down a rocky, sandy hill,” Hattabaugh told St. George News. “Now we drop their kayaks right into the water.”

Hattabaugh said that 2020-21 was their best year.

“The pandemic made a lot of people feel cooped up,” he said. “They couldn’t wait to get out here and into the water.”

But since then, they’ve seen a 33% drop in business.

“I attribute the drop to bad publicity,” he said. “I’ve had customers come from New York City, and they’re shocked to see that there’s still a lake.”

Taking a glass-half-full approach, Hattabaugh said that “nobody has seen the lake at this level since the 1960s.”

“The cliff faces that we’re known for are taller than they’ve ever been,” he said. “There are new formations emerging from the water. If you wait too long, you may miss it.”

National Park Service encourages more visitation

St. George News spoke with Jennifer Hardin of the National Park Service. She said that Lake Powell’s fluctuations, though they may feel extreme, aren’t new.

The bathtub lines around Lake Powell, looking toward Glen Canyon Dam, Page, AZ | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“As recently as 2019, Lake Powell had high water,” Hardin said. “Due to a strong spring runoff and rapidly rising water, boaters were warned not to park too close to the shoreline so their vehicles would not be surrounded by water and need towing.”

Hardin said fluctuating water levels create an ever-changing landscape.

“No two lake trips are ever the same,” she said.

When St. George News visited Lake Powell in early June, the only operable boat launch point was the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp, but construction was recently completed on the Bullfrog North Ramp Extension Project.

“This included regrading and permanently extending the Bullfrog North Ramp to reach a lake elevation of 3,525 feet,” Hardin said.

Use of this ramp will be dependent on water levels, which the park notes in daily updates.

But this hasn’t stopped visitors from returning to the area.

“Despite low water levels, visitation rebounded in 2021 from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020,” Hardin said. “Glen Canyon ranked No. 25 out of 423 National Park Service units in high visitation, with 3.1 million visitors.”

The docks at Lake Powell, near Wahweap Marina, Page, AZ | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument were among the highest sites in 2019. They had a combined 4.4 million visitors and poured $427 million into neighboring communities.

“That spending supported 5,243 jobs in the local area,” Hardin said, “and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $502.7 million.”

Hardin said visitors may expect congestion and should and exercise caution due to a higher concentration of boaters in all visitor use areas.

“Approach the shore with caution and watch for shallows and submerged debris,” she said. “Always wear a life jacket. Avoid swimming at marinas, cliff jumping and carbon monoxide emitted by running generators and engines.”

Though there are a number of challenges to contend with, Hardin encourages recreators to visit Lake Powell.

“As water levels at Lake Powell recede, new landscapes and slot canyons come to the surface and create new opportunities for exploration for boating, swimming, sailing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping and other activities.”

Special considerations for house boat anchoring

For those who rent or own house boats, Hardin said there are new anchoring guidelines to observe.

“We’d like to remind boaters that pin anchoring is illegal,” she said. The practice, which involves drilling holes into the sandstone along the shoreline, may cause permanent damage.

Beach Bags anchor this house boat near shore, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Beach Bags, St. George News

In response, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area announced that an “Alternative Anchoring Pilot Program is underway on Lake Powell.” According to a press release issued May 26, the program currently includes “one commercial use authorization permit holder, Beach Bags, that offers a new technology designed to provide a non-destructive houseboat anchoring system for use on sandstone outcroppings previously inaccessible using conventional anchoring methods.”

Troy Sherman, a partner at Beach Bags, said that boaters flop the bag down on shore. Then the snorkel is placed on the downslope side and into the water. Once pumping begins, the bag should be completely filled in as few as three minutes. Then boaters can just attach anchor lines and relax, Sherman said.

Ed Kmetz, an avid boater who runs Bulldog Marine in Page, said that he looks forward to trying the new anchoring bags.

“For a smaller house boat, they may work,” he told St. George News. “But I don’t know if they can anchor a boat over 75 feet. Especially if the wind really gets going.”

Sherman said that his team is composed of scientists, engineers and businesspeople — who also own house boats.

“We’ve tested Beach Bags on 75-foot boats and smaller,” he said. “Whereas a pin, depending upon its materials, fails somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 pounds of force, an 8,500 pound Beach Bag can withstand about twice that.”

“We’re anchoring boats at Lake Powell with more holding power than we’ve ever seen on Lake Powell,” Sherman said.

Interested parties may choose to rent the bags or pay extra for “full-service anchoring.” If you want the latter, plan to schedule an appointment ahead of time.

“We only have so many appointments available on any given day,” Sherman said.

The big picture

Page Mayor Bill Diak said he’s glad to finally see the water levels start to rise.

A sign from Mayor Bill Diak’s recent campaign, Page, AZ | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“We’ve dealt with some significant setbacks,” he said, “with the closing of the coal plant, the pandemic and the ongoing effects of the drought.”

Since the coal plant, and the mine that supported it, were shuttered in 2019, recreation and tourism have become the primary economic drivers in Page. The result, Diak said, was that the pandemic and the decreasing water level of Lake Powell have been rough for the area’s businesses.

“Tourism and related services have taken a hit,” he said. “The people come here for recreation and many of our businesses serve those people.”

“The situation is critical,” Diak added. “If water levels don’t come up by next summer, we may lose 15 to 20 businesses that rely upon the lake. If we want to avoid that, we’re going to have to get creative.”

Ed. note: This report is part of a series by St. George News examining conditions at Lake Powell as drought conditions persist in the region.

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