Lake Powell continues to disappear as Colorado hits pause on plan to prop up levels

The reservoir could drop below the level needed to generate power at the Glen Canyon Dam this year if other ways of increasing the elevation of the lake aren’t used.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abandoned buoys that used to protect a cultural site from boaters sit at the bottom of the Escalante River in Glen Canyon, Monday, May 17, 2021.

The Glen Canyon Dam may be one step closer to losing its ability to generate hydropower after water managers in Colorado announced last week that they will stop exploring one proposal to prop up the rapidly depleting levels in Lake Powell.

The plan — known as demand management — would compensate farmers and ranchers for voluntarily stopping irrigation on a temporary basis, sending water that would have been used for agriculture to the reservoir.

A drought contingency plan developed in 2019 by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming identified demand management as one method that could be used to keep the water level in Lake Powell above 3,525 feet in elevation, around a quarter of its capacity, in order to protect electricity generation.

The reservoir level fell below that target elevation earlier this month. It can only drop by 34 more feet before hydropower production becomes impossible. Lake Powell’s elevation dropped by 44 feet over the last year, following 2021′s dismal spring runoff, and this year’s runoff is projected to be well below average.

[Related: Seven weeks of near-record low snowfall in the Colorado River Basin have water managers worried]

The four-state demand management proposal was met with suspicion by agricultural interests, according to Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School who previously worked on Colorado River issues under the Obama administration.

Skeptics of the plan feared it could “wipe out irrigated agriculture” in parts of the river basin and fundamentally alter rural economies, Castle said at a recent University of Utah symposium hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center. She said those fears were “not unfounded” and “they would have to be dealt with in an equitable demand management program.”

Colorado had done the most work to explore the feasibility of the program, which would also require the participation of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Colorado Water Conservation Board chair Jaclyn Brown said last week that Colorado will halt the program while other states catch up, the Colorado Sun reported.

Utah still supports a four-state demand management program, said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, but it is also prepared to move forward with water conservation pilot projects and potentially pursue a smaller-scale demand management program on its own. She pointed to Utah’s investments in water measuring infrastructure, studies looking at switching to crops that require less water and other programs.

“Regardless of Colorado’s decision,” Haas said, “Utah will continue to move forward with every drought mitigation tool in our toolbox, including the temporary, voluntary and paid reduction in use through demand management activities in our own state.”

Other states in the basin have been highly critical of Utah’s plan to build the Lake Powell Pipeline, a 140-mile project that would supply water to the fast-growing St. George area, despite the critical decline of the reservoir. Utah has the lowest municipal water rates in the western United States and the highest rate of municipal water use, according to the Utah Rivers Council. The Legislature passed a number of water conservation bills this year aimed at reducing consumption.

The end of Lake Powell?

Advocates for the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam joined some agricultural producers in applauding Colorado’s decision to put a “hard pause” on the demand management study, including Daniel Beard, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who called the program “flawed.”

“It seems as if common sense has trumped wishful thinking,” Beard said in a statement issued by the advocacy group Save The Colorado. “The reality of climate change and drought will speed the demise of Lake Powell and the abandonment of Glen Canyon Dam. State and federal officials should join Save The Colorado in finding acceptable approaches to make the Colorado River through Glen Canyon wild again.”

In addition to demand management, the 2019 drought plan developed by the four upper basin states also identified increased cloud seeding and the draining of upper elevation reservoirs as methods for keeping Lake Powell above 3,525 feet.

But Utah and Colorado already have expansive cloud seeding programs and additional seeding efforts elsewhere in the Colorado River basin aren’t likely to offset the impact of human-caused climate change, which is contributing to the worst regional drought in at least 1,200 years.

Water managers made emergency releases of water from Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River and Utah’s Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River last year, which slowed but did not stop dropping levels in Lake Powell.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that it is studying modifications to the Glen Canyon Dam that would allow for power generation at lower water levels. That could include installing turbines on bypass tubes that are located below the current hydropower intakes.

Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, said at the Stegner Center symposium that the average annual temperature in the Colorado River basin has not dipped below the last century’s average since 2000 and more warming is likely, which is expected to further decrease river flows in the near future.

[Related: Daily Buzz Podcast - Colorado River Basin dries out and there’s less water in Powell than thought]

“We need to remove some demands permanently, not just temporarily,” Udall said. “We have a system that’s out of balance with more use than water, and the only lever we currently control is the demand lever.”

But Udall said finding the political will and leadership at federal and state levels to permanently reduce demand is difficult.

“My biggest fear,” Udall said, “is that it’s easier to let the system crash than it is to find the painful solutions that are needed.”

He defined a system crash as letting the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — empty because of an inability to respond to declining flows.

Udall added there have been incremental, positive solutions implemented in the basin over the last two decades, but he said future solutions have to be “more than incremental” to deal with the crisis.

John Entsminger, general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, put it even more bluntly in his comments at the symposium.

“To paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts,” Entsminger said, “the future of the Colorado River is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.