The nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is continuing to dry up, placing water supplies and power generation in the West in potentially dire straits.
Lake Powell is an artificial lake in the middle of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and Utah. Created in 1963 after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, the lake has become a critical source of hydropower and water for the West.
Now, for the first time, the water levels at the lake are threatening to dip below 3,525 feet in elevation, a critical elevation marker, with water levels dropping a full 45 feet in the past year.A boat cruises along Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., on July 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
The critical elevation provides 35 feet of buffer before we reach our minimum power pool elevation where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate hydropower, ” said Heather Patno, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Levels are expected to be below the target elevation for a few weeks before rebounding in April due to snowmelt from mountains along the Colorado River Basin. Hydropower generation is not expected to be affected this spring, but it is possible that the reservoir’s level will dip to critically low levels again in the summer.
“We’re talking about multiple seasons of well-below-average rain and snow that have kind of gotten us to this point, coupled with exceptionally high temperatures which we attribute to regional warming from global warming, ” said Justin Mankin, an assistant geography professor at Dartmouth College and a co-lead at NOAA’s drought task force.
Water conservation measures will likely need to be implemented, something that Mankin says will hit farmers in the West first. As drought conditions continue to build, farmers may be asked to limit their water usage, something which makes growing crops more difficult.
“These are unprecedented times, and these decisions are not taken lightly, and we’re aware of the impacts it has to the Colorado Basin, where there’s 40 million people within the basin,” Patno said.
While water cuts might be necessary to sustain the water supply this year, Mankin believes that the continued drought in the West indicates that more structural solutions might be needed in the future.
|A current look at drought conditions in the Western United States as of March 10, 2022.
One peer-reviewed study published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the western United States and parts of northern Mexico are experiencing their driest period in at least 1,200 years, with some calling the unprecedented period of dryness a “megadrought.”
“This drought is indicating we need a structural orientation of our management of water in the West,” Mankin said. “What does it mean for the West to be in an exceptional drought, that is, a drought without exception, every year?”
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By Zachary Rosenthal
Drought contingency plans define the 3,525-foot mark as a significant “target elevation” for the reservoir, under which the situation becomes dire. As of Thursday, Lake Powell had fallen to just over 3,526 feet in elevation, which is just over 24% of capacity and less than two feet away from the critical level.
“We’re kind of in some uncharted territory, socially and economically,” Justin Mankin, assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College and co-lead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force, told CNN. “It’s totally within reason to expect that the next couple of weeks or so for [Lake Powell] to fall below the critical level.”
Lake Powell’s plunging water level threatens Glen Canyon Dam’s capacity to produce hydropower, much like Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. Glen Canyon Dam provides power for many states including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Nebraska.
The 3,525-foot target is crucial because it allows a 35-foot buffer for emergency response to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the minimum pool elevation of 3,490 feet above sea level, the lowest at which Glen Canyon Dam is able to generate hydropower.
Lake Powell and nearby Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have drained at an alarming rate in the last year. In August, the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time after Lake Mead’s water level plunged to unprecedented lows, triggering mandatory water consumption cuts for states in the Southwest which began in January.
The significance of the dwindling supply in the two reservoirs, fed by the Colorado River watershed, cannot be overstated. Water flowing down the Colorado River fills both Powell and Mead, which are part of a river system supplying more than 40 million people living across seven Western states and Mexico. Both reservoirs provide a critical supply of drinking water and irrigation for many across the region, including rural farms, ranches and native communities.
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