Colorado River Reservoirs Are So Low, Government Will Delay Releases (2022)

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The decision will keep more water in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, instead of releasing it downstream to Lake Mead. Both reservoirs are at their lowest points.

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Colorado River Reservoirs Are So Low, Government Will Delay Releases (1)

By Henry Fountain

With long-term severe drought continuing to take a toll on the Colorado River, the federal government announced on Tuesday that it will retain some water in one of the river’s major reservoirs, describing it as an extraordinary action to temporarily stave off increased uncertainty in water and electricity supplies in the West.

The decision to keep more water in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, rather than releasing it downstream to the other major reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, comes as both are at record-low levels after 20 years of drought made worse by climate change. Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, currently holds less than one-fourth of the amount it held when it filled after the dam was built in the 1960s.

“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River basin,” said Tanya Trujillo, an Interior Department assistant secretary. “But the conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demand that we take prompt action.”

Together with the release of more water into Lake Powell from an upstream dam, the decision will keep the lake at a level at which it can continue generating hydropower for the next 12 months. Beyond that, Ms. Trujillo said, the situation will be re-evaluated.

Loss of hydropower production would create a number of problems for the water and electricity supply, and for the dam itself.

All told, the actions will result in about a million acre-feet of additional water in Lake Powell. That is about 15 percent of the lake’s current volume and is equivalent to the annual amount used by 2 million or more households.

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Ms. Trujillo acknowledged that the actions were a short-term fix, and that work was needed on solutions to make the river, which supplies water to 40 million people, sustainable over the long term.

Conservation groups and water policy experts agreed.

Bart Miller, a program director with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group, said his organization supported the bureau’s decision. “But it’s not enough to fix the problem,” he said. “Throughout the Colorado River basin we are using more water than the river provides.”

Mr. Miller said the infrastructure bill that was approved by Congress last year should help. It earmarks $300 million for drought contingency planning in the Colorado basin.

Haley Paul, policy director at Audubon Arizona, said that the region needed to quickly figure out how to share a river made smaller by climate change. “I don’t think we’re there and we urgently need to get there,” she said.

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Lake Mead is currently at 31 percent of capacity, and because it gets almost all its water from releases from Powell, the decision to hold back water at Glen Canyon Dam will cause it to fall even lower.

The status of Lake Mead led the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior agency responsible for the supply of water and electricity from the Colorado, to declare a first-ever water shortage there last August. That triggered cuts in the supply from the lake, mostly to Arizona.

The bureau is evaluating the situation and could decide this summer that Lake Mead has declined to a point where even more cuts are necessary. But Ms. Trujillo said the water being held back would not factor in that decision.

The reservoirs, the two largest in the United States, have been declining for years, amid a megadrought that began in 2000 and that has continued and been made worse by global warming. This period is now the driest two decades in 1,200 years.

The Colorado gets most of its water from melting snowpack, and the situation has worsened over the past two years as soils have become so dry that much of the runoff was absorbed before reaching the river. This year, runoff in the upper Colorado basin, which reaches Lake Powell, is projected to be only about two-thirds of average.

The level of Lake Powell is currently at an elevation of 3,523 feet, 177 feet below capacity. The intakes that allow water through the dam to generate hydropower are at 3,490 feet.

In a letter to state water officials in April in which she proposed keeping water in Lake Powell, Ms. Trujillo wrote that if the lake reached 3,490 feet, “the western electrical grid would experience uncertain risk and instability.”

Hydropower is useful in maintaining the stability of electrical grids in part because the amount of electricity generated can quickly be changed to help the grid match demand.

In addition, Ms. Trujillo wrote, water supplies to Western and Southwestern states “would be subject to increased operational uncertainty.” Water supplies to Page, Ariz., near the dam, and a nearby Native tribe, would especially be at risk, she wrote, because their intake is at about the same elevation as the hydropower intakes.

The dam itself would face “unprecedented reliability challenges,” Ms. Trujillo wrote, because with the hydropower intakes above the water level, the lake water would have to be routed through the dam using lower tunnels that were not designed for continuous use. “We are approaching operating conditions for which we have only very limited actual operating experience — and which occurred nearly 60 years ago,” she wrote.

Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, said the concerns about the reliability of the power grid and of the dam had not really been raised in all the drought contingency planning over the past few decades.

“We’ve expended a lot of effort in producing plans” for what happens when the reservoirs fall to critical levels, Mr. Udall said. “And what we’re finding out, unfortunately, is that these plans are turning out to be completely inadequate. All of a sudden these new issues arise and haven’t having previously been considered and are really important.”

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