Utah, neighboring states agree to emergency plan that will send more water to Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge

Critics say the plan amounts to “putting out fires” and will not be enough to save the reservoir.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trees in Iceberg Canyon are exposed by dropping water levels in Lake Powell on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

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Water managers are moving forward with an emergency plan to send more water to Lake Powell in the latest attempt to protect hydropower production at the Glen Canyon Dam after another below-average snow season.

The first drought response measure will send 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir along the Utah-Wyoming border to Lake Powell over the next year. The move is expected to drop the level in Flaming Gorge by 15 feet.

The second measure, which was proposed by the Department of Interior earlier this month, will release less water than usual from Lake Powell into the Grand Canyon, keeping an additional 480,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir.

The Colorado River Authority of Utah, a state agency created in 2021 to protect and develop Utah’s interests in the Colorado River system, announced support for both measures on Thursday.

“The water level at Lake Powell has dropped much more rapidly than our models anticipated and has made it necessary for us to take expedited measures to address the situation,” said Gene Shawcroft, chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah and Utah’s River Commissioner.

“By keeping more water in Lake Powell,” he continued, “and adding to it from upstream reservoirs … we will help address immediate issues, even as prolonged drought conditions persist.”

The plans will add nearly a million acre-feet of water to Lake Powell, enough to supply roughly two million homes in the Southwest for a year.

But Lake Powell’s level has declined by almost 1.5 million acre-feet since October, dropping at a rate of nearly one foot per week.

The emergency measures aren’t likely to add much to the overall volume of water stored in Lake Powell in the long run, but they will help delay the reservoir from dropping by another 32 feet, at which point hydropower generation would cease.

Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, said that although the proposed actions are extraordinary, they won’t be enough to save power generation at the dam.

“This strategy is really putting out fires,” he said. “What the Bureau of Reclamation and states need to be doing right now is they need to be planning for the transition away from Lake Powell.”

The Bureau of Reclamation released an updated forecast this week, which projects runoff into Lake Powell will be 64% of average this year. Even with the emergency measures, Lake Powell is expected to drop from its current elevation of 3,523 feet above sea level to 3,501 in less than a year.

Hydroelectric production would stop at or above 3,490 feet to prevent damage to the turbines in the Glen Canyon Dam. Electricity generation at the dam has already declined by half due to the drought and the region’s high water use.

Below 3,490, the benefits of the dam diminish rapidly, Balken said. No power will be produced, and the lower outtakes on the dam may not be able to withstand continuous use, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Dam managers would also be constrained in the amount of water they could release downstream.

“At that level, all of the intended purposes of the dam become moot,” Balken said. “You start to see more problems than advantages. We need to start planning for that now, instead of just hoping that piecemeal efforts can save the reservoir because we know that they can’t.”

The lower the reservoir gets, the more variable the lake elevation becomes, presenting additional problems for the National Park Service, which manages boat ramps and marinas on Lake Powell. Balken believes it’s time to consider adding new tunnels at the base of the dam that would allow the reservoir to be drained completely while preserving it as a backup facility.

The town of Page, Ariz., and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation are the only two areas that draw water for municipal use directly from Lake Powell, and their water supply could be threatened if Lake Powell falls below 3,490 feet.

Shawcroft acknowledged that the emergency actions alone likely won’t be enough. ”Obviously this doesn’t solve the problem,” he said, “but it certainly allows us to have time to develop more of the guideline structure.”

[Related: As Lake Powell shrinks, the Colorado River is coming back to life]

The plan to draw down Flaming Gorge was agreed to by Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. The states left open the possibility that additional releases could be made from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico later this year.

The releases come with tradeoffs, and a similar measure taken last year severely impacted the local recreation economy on Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colo.

The Department of Interior’s plan to hold back water in Lake Powell will mean less water will arrive in Lake Mead, which is also facing record low levels that could threaten hydropower generation at the Hoover Dam.

Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency on Thursday due to the dire drought conditions across Utah. Over 99% of the state is in severe drought or worse, and 43.5% of Utah is experiencing extreme drought conditions.

“We’ve had a very volatile water year, and unfortunately, recent spring storms are not enough to make up the shortage in our snowpack,” Cox said. “Once again, I call on all Utahns — households, farmers, businesses, governments and other groups — to carefully consider their needs and reduce their water use. We saved billions of gallons last year and we can do it again.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County 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.