Located on the ArizonaUtah border, Lake Powell serves the drinking water needs of 40 million people in the Southwest while welcoming over 3 million recreational visitors every year. However, what lies beneath may give pause to those who depend on the lake. OZY reports that silt on the lake bed covers 26,000 tons of radioactive waste. A remnant from the mid-century uranium boom in the American West, the radioactive stockpile is not thought to be particularly dangerous. Still, even trace amounts can increase the risk of anemia, fractured teeth, cataracts and cancer – dangers which can become more threatening if Lake Powell suffers an extended drought.

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Lake Powell, Utah, Arizona, Southwest lakes

At the moment, Lake Powell seems safe. “The uranium mill tailings produce a sandy waste that contains heavy metals and radium, which is radioactive, but these tailings have been down there since around the 1950s, with several feet of sediment placed over top of them and the water used as a moderator, or a shield,” Phil Goble, uranium mill and radioactive materials section manager for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, told OZY. However, the radioactive waste is not entirely benign, particularly if conditions change. “The tailings could potentially become a problem if Lake Powell gets to a very, very low water level or if the lake is drained, and the tailings are exposed,” Goble said. “In this case, if someone were to dig down and expose those tailings, or the wind blows them, or people use the spot for recreational use of off-road vehicles, then there could be a health hazard.”

Related: Scientists puzzle over mysterious disappearance of mercury from Utah’s Great Salt Lake

Lake Powell is a manmade lake carved from the surrounding red rock canyon and has not been completely full since the late 1990s. In the early years of the 2000s, it suffered a serious drought in which water levels dropped nearly 100 feet, or one-fifth of the lake’s full depth. Given the increased threat of climate change-related drought, it is not so difficult to imagine a situation in which Lake Powell’s water level drops enough to expose the radioactive waste to the surface environment. In the meantime, scientists are monitoring the lake while locals are encouraged to keep drinking from and playing in the beautiful body of water.


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