Castle Rock Cut is a popular short-cut route on Lake Powell that allows boaters at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to shorten the trip between the major Wahweap Marina and destinations uplake by a distance of 12 miles. Years of drought and falling water levels for the lake have made this shortcut unusable by boaters, so work is getting underway at to lower this channel by another twenty feet.
Located just over the Utah border between Wahweap Creek and Warm Creek Bays, the Castle Rock Cut area is about 3 miles due east of the Wahweap Developed Area. The Wahweap Marina is at the southern end of Lake Powell, near the town of Page, and is the major marina facility at Glen Canyon NRA.
Work to Deepen the Cut Dates Back to the 1970s
The Cut was first deepened in the 1970s, to an elevation of 3,622 feet above sea level, and the work has been repeated several times since then. In early 2013, a project lowered the bottom elevation of the cut to approximately 3600 feet, and the announcement of that work came with a bit of disclaimer: "If the lake drops further in subsequent years, excavation could continue to a maximum depth of 3580 feet."
Unfortunately for boaters and the park, "subsequent years" turned out to be less than a year away. With lake levels continuing to fall, the work for 2013 was largely in vain—the water never rose high enough during the summer tourist season for the deepened cut to be used by boaters.
Work scheduled to get underway on January 21 "will lower the bottom elevation of the cut to approximately 3580 feet, removing over 70,000 cubic yards of material." This year's project was envisioned when an environmental assessment was completed back in 2008. That document called for plans, if needed, to deepen the cut by 35 feet over a five-year period.
The Cut Saves Boaters Time and Money, But It's Not Cheap
Some, of course, will question the value of the work, with costs estimated by some sources in the neighborhood of $1 million, but boaters and business interests defend it. Depending upon the source used, travel through the cut saves approximately 10 to 12 miles of boating, and cuts an average of an hour or so off of the trip each way between the major marina at Wahweap and the majority of locations on the lake.
NPS Project Manager Carl Elleard says, "This not only saves time and gas for boaters, but it also provides for a safer boating experience." With key NPS infrastructure and staff located in the Wahweap area, travel through the Cut also reduces response time for uplake emergencies.
Previous articles on the Traveler about earlier work on the Cut has evoked some definite opinions about the pros and cons of the work. When the EA was completed by the NPS back in 2008, public comments ran about 90% in favor of the project.
Success of the Project Depends Largely on Mountain Snows
Will the latest efforts to keep the cut open for boaters be adequate for at least a few years? The answer depends on adequate moisture in the huge watershed for the Upper Colorado River, and it's certainly too soon to know the final picture for the current winter. Lake levels are typically lowest in the winter, and are normally expected to rise as the year progresses and snowmelt reaches the lake.
Lake levels can respond fairly quickly to a "good winter" in terms of runoff upstream. Compared to 2007, the maximum lake level was up 22 feet in 2008 and up 31 feet in 2009. The following video, shot by a kayak group that enjoys using the Cut, illustrates how water levels in the cut changed between May 11 and June 8 in 2008. Their trip in June 2008 marked the first time the Cut had been open to boaters since 2002.
The long-term drought trend for recent years continued during 2013, however, and the maximum lake level of 3609 feet was recorded on the first day of the year. The minimum level of 3584 feet was recorded at the end of December, and earlier this week, the lake level was 3580.75 feet. That's virtually the same as the new "bottom" of the cut once it's deepened by the current project.
Earlier this week, Lake Powell was reported to be 119.44 feet below Full Pool (elevation 3,700); by content, the lake is 41.06% of Full Pool. You'll find considerable current and historic data on lake levels at this link.
The short video below was shot on February 8, 2013, shortly before last year's work to deepen the Cut got underway. It shows the Cut high and dry at an elevation of 3604 feet.
The low water will make it easy to complete the work, but lake levels will need to rise about six feet this spring for the work to pay off for summer boaters. Scheduled completion for the project is late April, but Cut will not reopen to boaters until lake levels allow. The park will notify the public via the park website and media releases when this occurs.
Boaters, water managers and everyone else with interests in the water level in Lake Powell can all agree on a sentiment in terms of the weather in Utah and Colorado in the next three months: "Let it snow!"