Steamboat Pilot, May 2, 2022
For the first time in history, Lake Powell has dipped below 3,525 feet. This man-made reservoir provides water and power to the southwest. The reservoir’s normal capacity is 3,700 feet. And experts agree that its current level is the “alarm bell” signaling agencies to act to save the lake. The crisis is so imminent that on April 8, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued an emergency request to Arizona, Nevada and California, asking them to reduce their water deliveries to prevent Lake Powell from dropping to too dangerous a level. The states agreed to the proposed cutbacks on April 22.
Lake Powell, for all its current importance, had a complicated creation. During the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation planned to create a dam along the Colorado River, to provide more water to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. The aim was to fulfill the Upper Basin states’ obligation to deliver water to them via the Colorado River.
The Sierra Club, led by David Brower, successfully protested the site of the dam, since it would submerge the beautiful landscape of a natural park. The government moved the dam’s site to Glen Canyon instead, at the border of Utah and Arizona. Here, they started construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, with a capacity of 3,700 feet of water. When Brower visited Glen Canyon before its flooding, he was stricken to see that it was full of natural sandstone features, towering cliffs and indigenous sites, just as the dam’s original proposed site had been. Glen Canyon is known as the “Lost National Park.”
Thus, the second-largest reservoir in America was borne out of a battle to provide water to the Lower Basin and squeeze as much as possible out of the Colorado River. Although Brower lamented Powell’s creation, he could have never imagined that, in 2022, the lake would face a crisis that might end its ability to provide water and electricity to millions of people across the country, and in part of Mexico.
If the lake does drop lower than 3,490 feet, it is uncertain how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that rely on it. Lake Powell doesn’t only supply water to millions of Americans, it also provides power through turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydropower. All Colorado Basin states receive power from the dam.
Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it’s closely connected. Forty million people, from Wyoming to Mexico, rely on water from the Colorado River, including every Grand County resident. When someone turns on the tap here, they are getting the same water that will eventually get sent down to Lake Powell for a California (or other regional) resident.
“We all rely on water from the West Slope, and we have to keep West Slope water levels healthy,” Klancke said.
The Colorado River Compact, created in 1922, dictates that waters of the Upper Basin states (which Colorado is a part of) are to be shared by the Lower Basin states. The Colorado River flows from its headwaters at Rocky Mountain National Park, and Lake Powell was created to reserve that water and fulfill the compact’s obligations.
“The problem with the compact now is that the reserves are drying up,” Klancke said. “The compact decided how the water was going to be shared. It was created during a very wet period when 15 million acre feet were flowing through the river. Now, it’s more like 11 million acre feet, but (the Upper Basin) is still required to share 7.5 million acre feet. We can’t offer that 7.5 million anymore.”
Klancke feels the Lower Basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, and this may decrease the water supply of Upper Basin states like Colorado.
“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be cut into to make up the difference,” he said. “I worry they might go after our agricultural rights first … and (agriculture) makes up a huge part of our economy.”
There were 290 farms operating in Grand County in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture. In Colorado, there were 38,700 farms and ranches in 2020.
“If ranchers don’t have enough water, they can’t produce enough hay, and they can’t feed their livestock,” Klancke said. The importance of agriculture is undeniable; the crops and cattle in an irrigated field will all feed us one day.
Klancke believes there are many solutions to Lake Powell’s scarcity besides cutting into agriculture use.
“We have to find a way to intelligently use and appropriate water,” he said. “How can the Upper Basin use less water to provide water to the Lower Basin?”
One example would be less irrigation of Front Range lawns.
“The front range was built on a desert, but everywhere they’re growing Kentucky bluegrass. They’re watering it in a desert, trying to turn it green,“ said Klancke.
Kentucky bluegrass, the emblem of a well-kept suburban lawn, is not native to Colorado and requires a lot of irrigation. Klancke feels watering lawns like these are the “low hanging fruit” that water users can eliminate first. This first step in conservation is simple, but can go a long way.
“If we’re sending less water to the Front Range, that can really boost our rivers here on the West Slope,” Klancke said.
He added that there are also tactics Colorado farmers can take to use their water wisely.
“Instead of planting corn here, we can plant crops that need less irrigation,” he said.
Ranchers can also prepare for temporary water cutbacks by studying the effects of less irrigation. Several ranchers did just that during a Demand Management Feasibility study in the Colorado River Basin. They dried their fields and realized that their fallow field was not the end of the ranch. When they began watering again, the fields flourished once more.
Organizations such as the Colorado Water Trust are also working to restore flows to rivers in need, like the Colorado.
“The dry conditions that are impacting water users and storage throughout the Colorado River basin make our projects even more important, but create great uncertainty for us and our partners,” said Kate Ryan, Director of Programs and the Senior Staff Attorney of the Colorado Water Trust. “We’re collaborating with partners like Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users to ensure there are supplies for multiple uses in our state (such as) irrigation deliveries and hydropower generation.”.
According to Klancke, there is also a small amount of good news in this story — more Colorado snowmelt is expected to make it downriver to the reservoir.
“Last year, we had close to 100% of average snowpack, but because of extremely dry soils moisture conditions, only around 34% of that snowpack made it. This year, we have similar snowpack conditions but over 60% is expected to make it to Lake Powell,” Klancke said.
Other good news: On April 22, the Upper Basin states united in response to the Department of Interior’s emergency request. They decided to release 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to flow down to Lake Powell, starting on May 1. The water from Flaming Gorge will ensure that hydroelectric power generation continues at Powell, and drinking water will continue to flow to the nearby city of Page, Arizona, with its Navajo community of LeChee. These two disasters could occur if Powell’s levels were allowed to drop below 3,490 feet.
The extra 500,000 acre-feet will help cushion Lake Powell’s levels over time. Klanke cautioned not to become too optimistic, however.
“We are still in a 20-year drought cycle,” he said, even as experts project a hotter, drier climate around the world.
“Water users in Colorado are on the front lines of climate change, and will continue to face years of dry hydrology, poor soil moisture and aridification,” said Sara Leonard, Marketing and Communications Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “This means our water users face shortages to their water supplies nearly every year.”
With the threat of climate change looming ever larger, Lake Powell’s levels likely will never return to what they once were in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, rafters traveling through the low waters of Lake Powell can make out the indigenous rock carvings on the recently exposed sandstone walls, just as Brower did before the canyon was flooded 50 years ago.