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West’s megadrought delivers another blow: Saving Glen Canyon Dam

Lake Powell releases cut by nearly a half million acre feet

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Glen Canyon Dam on a sunny day with Lake Powell behind it. The rocky banks of Lake Powell show evidence of higher waterlines when water volume was greater.

The Glen Canyon Dam is pictured in Page, Ariz., on March 28, 2021. For the first time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is adjusting operations at the dam, reducing water deliveries to the Colorado River Lower Basin states by nearly a half-million acre-feet.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

For the first time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is adjusting operations at the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, reducing water deliveries to the Colorado River Lower Basin states by nearly a half-million acre-feet.

“Today’s decision reflects the truly unprecedented challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and will provide operational certainty for the next year. Everyone who relies on the Colorado River must continue to work together to reduce uses and think of additional proactive measures we can take in the months and years ahead to rebuild our reservoirs,” said Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tanya Trujillo.

The bureau went on to say that given the extraordinary circumstances in the basin, reclamation is invoking its authority to change annual operations at Glen Canyon Dam to protect hydropower generation, the facility’s key infrastructure, and the water supply for the city of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

To protect Lake Powell, more water will flow into the lake from upstream reservoirs and less water will be released downstream:

  • Under a Drought Contingency Plan adopted in 2019, approximately 500,000 acre-feet of water will come from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, located approximately 455 river miles upstream of Lake Powell.
  • Another 480,000 acre-feet of water will be left in Lake Powell by reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million acre-feet to 7 million acre-feet.

The actions by the bureau will augment water supplies at Lake Powell by nearly a million acre-feet over the next year.

At present, Lake Powell’s water surface elevation is at 3,522 feet, its lowest level since originally being filled in the 1960s. The bureau said critical elevation at Lake Powell is 3,490 feet, the lowest point at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower.

The bureau emphasized that this elevation introduces new uncertainties for reservoir operations and water deliveries because the facility has never operated under such conditions for an extended period.

The two actions it announced Tuesday will result in an elevation increase of 16 feet.

Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, told the Deseret News that the decisions by the bureau signify a move into unchartered territory when it comes to Colorado River Basin states.

“Everyone understands how serious this is,” he said. “It’s not just deliveries, it is a combination of everything.”

According to the bureau, hydroelectric power produced by the dam’s eight generators helps meet the electrical needs of the West’s growing population. The generators have a total capacity of 1,320 megawatts. The plant produces around 5 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually, which is distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska.

Shawcroft said beyond power generation, there has to be sufficient water at Glen Canyon to basically “push” those downstream flows through bypass tubes for delivery to Lake Mead — and that means keeping sufficient water in Lake Powell.

These actions by the bureau, in cooperation with states and Mexico, are steps in response to the drought, but aren’t the answer, he said.

“This is a temporary, temporary action that helps significantly and can make a difference, but it is not the long-term solution. We know we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have all got to change our minds on how we deal with water.”

Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy, said the actions underscore the widespread impacts of the drought in the West.

“Today’s announcement to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell is a stark reminder of the dire conditions in the Colorado River Basin and the urgency to develop a plan to mitigate this ongoing crisis,” she said.

“We face unprecedented challenges in the basin following decades of higher temperatures, low runoff conditions, and depleted reservoirs. We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can control our demands and how quickly we develop and implement solutions.”

In August, the bureau declared the first shortage on the Colorado River, triggering mandatory water delivery cuts to Nevada and Arizona, as well as Mexico.

The bureau also took other steps.

“We made releases last summer from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa reservoirs,” said Upper Colorado Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “Now, given the extraordinary circumstances, our release from Flaming Gorge is designed to substantively benefit the continued operation at Lake Powell while having a manageable effect on Flaming Gorge.”

As a result of these new releases, the bureau said the surface elevation at Flaming Gorge will drop by nine feet.

As the water levels continue to dwindle in neighboring Lake Mead, other grim news is surfacing.

A barrel containing human remains was discovered by boaters over the weekend. USA Todayreported the barrel had likely been there since the 1980s, according to police.