Located on the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell is currently at an unprecedented low surface elevation of 3,522 feet since it was filled in the 1960s — at less than a quarter of its full capacity. The lowest point at which the Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydroelectric power is at 3,490 feet, its “minimum energy pool,” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.
May 5 – For the first time, federal officials are taking extraordinary measures to boost drought-stricken Lake Powell in the western United States while protecting hydroelectric operations that generate electricity for millions of homes and businesses.
“The facility has never been operated under such conditions for a long period of time,” officials at the bureau said.
The Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday it will delay the planned release of water from Lake Powell’s Colorado River reservoir to the downstream states (Arizona, California and Nevada) by withholding nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water. Officials hope holding back the water will boost the reservoir for another 12 months.
In addition, an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming line will be injected into Lake Powell, in accordance with a plan finalized last month by the upper basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Those two emergency responses “should add about 16 feet of elevation,” Wayne Pullan, the bureau’s regional director for Upper Colorado, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Today’s decision reflects the truly unprecedented challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and will provide operational security for the next year,” Deputy Secretary of Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement. “All who depend on the Colorado River must continue to work together to reduce consumption and consider additional proactive actions we can take over the coming months and years to rebuild our reservoirs.”
“The Department of the Interior remains committed to addressing the challenges of climate change by employing science-based, innovative strategies and working with all diverse communities” that depend on the Colorado River, Trujillo added.
Approximately 5 million customers in seven states rely on the dam for power – Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Experts say extreme drought conditions have pushed Lake Powell and the other major reservoir, Lake Mead, 316 miles downstream of the Colorado River, to unprecedented levels in the past two decades.
“We’re talking about multiple seasons of well-below-average rain and snow that got us to this point, coupled with exceptionally high temperatures that we attribute to regional warming from global warming,” said Justin Mankin, assistant geography professor at Dartmouth College and co- Chief of NOAA’s drought task force, AccuWeather said.
According to researchers from the University of Utah and the US Geological Survey, sediments further contributed to the sinking of the reservoir.
A report released in March in collaboration with the Bureau of Reclamation found that Lake Powell lost 6.8% of its storage capacity between 1963 and 2018 due to sediments deposited in the reservoir bed. The report also confirmed that the lake has lost 4% of its capacity since 1986.
The water level in the two lakes has dropped so drastically that boaters discovered a decades-old corpse, an apparent shooting victim from the 1970s or 1980s, stuffed into a barrel in Lake Mead on Sunday.
At Lake Powell, a family on a fishing trip discovered a shipwrecked boat that had been uncovered by receding waters in April 2021.