Lake Powell on the rise, expecting big boating summer

To the Perez family, newly arrived from Miami, this raw, red-rock landscape is so foreign, it might as well be the moon. Or, perhaps, the Holy Land (which it stood in for in the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told). Or post-apocalyptic America (see Planet of the Apes). Or maybe just a place that enables temporary refuge from the daily hustle.

William Perez, 33, his wife, Gisell, 34, and their two sons, Casey, 6, and Matthew, 2, are about to motor off on a houseboat for four days of R&R on the emerald waters of this vast man-made lake. But as with most things in life, houseboating is not without rules and caveats. An instructor has Perez inspect the propellers for damage, confirm that the 170-gallon gas tanks are full, and check the propane levels and hot-water tank. There are insurance papers to sign. And warnings to heed — a single long beep and a flashing light from the control panel is a bad thing. Oh, and if they spot any mouse droppings, don't touch them. They could carry the hantavirus, a rare but nasty disease.

When the "not responsible for lost or stolen items" spiel is over, the wife and kids settle in and Perez takes the helm, declaring, "We're going to find a nice beach, and fish and enjoy."

The Perezes are early comers in what both national parks and commercial interests here believe will be a robust boating summer, following nine years of drought that drained the lake 100-plus feet below its high-water mark. Thanks to record winter snowfall in the Rockies, the waters of Lake Powell are expected to rise 50 feet this summer, Bureau of Reclamation officials predict.

Most significantly, the higher lake levels mean a popular route known as the Castle Rock Cut will reopen, lopping 12 miles off the journey from Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell's main put-in, to up-lake destinations such as Rainbow Bridge National Monument. At 290 feet tall (and broad enough to span the White House), the sandstone marvel is the world's largest natural bridge and an iconic giant in a land teeming with the gargantuan.

Deep and wide

Indeed, dimensions in this wide-open country boggle the mind. Lake Powell itself constitutes only 13% of the 1.2-million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The lake began forming in 1963 when Glen Canyon Dam corralled waters of the Colorado River, which eventually backed up 186 miles. Its shoreline, zigzagging through 96 major canyons, totals 1,960 miles when the lake is full — more than the straight-line distance between Mexico and Canada. High-water marks in the mid-1980s reached 3,700 feet above sea level and a depth of more than 500 feet.

But in recent years, news of diminishing lake levels (a white bathtub ring etched on the red canyon walls records where the water once reached) has contributed to a dip in visitation — from about 3 million annually in the late 1990s to about 2 million last year.

"Still, it's a deep lake," says Steve Carothers, general manager of Antelope Point Marina, one of two commercial operators here. "It's 500 feet in parts. So if you think of the water drop as knocking 10 stories off a 50-story building, it's not so dire."

In fact, as levels diminished in recent years, some took a the-lake-is-half-full attitude, pointing to long-submerged attributes of Glen Canyon that once again became visible.

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