Lake Powell hits record lows as megadrought deteriorates
Photo: Susan Montoya (AP)
In the midst of the West’s terrible mega-drought, there is more bad news on the water front. Lake Powell, a major reservoir on the Colorado River, is now at its lowest level since the reservoir was first filled in the late 1960s.
On Friday, the second largest reservoir in the country sank to 1,083.6 meters. according to to the complaints office. That’s just below the previous low of 3,555.1 feet (1,083.6 meters) set in April 2005. By Saturday, Lake Powell continued to drop to 3,554.9 feet (1,083.5 meters). The reservoir now has only 33% of its full capacity and is more than 33.5 meters below the 1981-2010 average. Officials have closed some of the busiest marinas on the lake due to the low water level.
The comparatively small change in water level may not seem large at first glance (what is a tenth of a foot?), But it is a sign of the problems and the uncertain future of the reservoir. Thanks to a dry winter and little snow cover, the lake received 2.5 million hectares less water than expected last season. This winter was one of the three driest in the region on record. The bad winter and extreme heat this summer aggravate the region’s mega-drought. But the long-term trends are devastating to the region’s water supply. Climate change could decrease the flow of the Colorado River by up to 30% in the middle of the century. At the same time, a growing population – the river supplies 40 million people with water – is leading to overexploitation.
“Basically, every drop in the river is used. And so everyone wants a piece of this river and there is nothing left, ”said Brad Udall, climate scientist at Colorado State University, said KUNC. “The difficult lesson we learn about climate change is that it is not a gradual, slow descent into a new state.”
The announcement comes less than two weeks after the federal government announced it would begin emergency drainage of water upstream into Lake Powell to ensure the reservoir can continue to generate hydropower. The Glen Canyon Dam, a 1,320 megawatt hydroelectric power plant that generates electricity for customers in seven different states, is located in Lake Powell and requires a water level of at least 1,063.8 meters. The first publication that a source said KUNC was an “emergency lever” that began on July 15 from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming, releasing 50 cubic feet per second of water into the reservoir every day. The releases, which the government said will run through the end of the year, will increase the Flaming Gorge by 1.2 meters, Navajo Lake in New Mexico by 2 feet, and the Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado drops by 8 feet (2.4 meters) while raising levels in Lake Powell by 2.6 feet (0.8 meters).
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This publication will total about 59 billion gallons of water – which still won’t be enough to stop the shrinking reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation told reporters during a press briefing Friday to discuss the new lows that the lake has fallen 46.9 meters since the late 1990s. That’s the equivalent of 5.2 trillion gallons of water, or enough water to supply 64 million households. It’s also nearly two orders of magnitude larger than this year’s release.
The new lows aren’t the only bad news for the region. Lake Mead, another critical reservoir along the Colorado River, was also reached historic lows in June; Officials said the lake is expected to sink in August to levels that would trigger scarcity next year, forcing states that rely on the river to take water-saving measures. A 24-month study of the future of Lake Powell conducted by the federal government predicts the reservoir could fall below a critical 3,525-foot (1,075-meter) threshold by April next year. If Lake Powell falls below these levels, it could affect how some states source their water and spark potential lawsuits and fights over water use in the area. California’s reservoirs are also at a record low, and Hydropower could be restricted at least one dam if they continue to shrink.
“This is a milestone,” said Kyle Roerink, Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network, said the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the new low on Lake Powell. “And it won’t be the last this summer.”