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Colorado River Basin Reservoirs Begin Emergency Releases To Prop Up A Troubled Lake Powell

Anchored houseboats hang out at Hall's Crossing Marina at Lake Powell in southern Utah.
Luke Runyon
Anchored houseboats hang out at Hall's Crossing Marina at Lake Powell in southern Utah.

Updated July 19, 2021:

Federal officials laid out details of how reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell will release water in an attempt to keep producing hydropower. On Friday the Bureau of Reclamation published new forecasts for reservoir operations in the Colorado River basin.

Increased water releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border have begun and will continue until October. Releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado are scheduled to run from August to October. Navajo Lake, which spans the Colorado-New Mexico border, will ramp up releases in November and December. The releases will result in an additional drop of 4 feet in Flaming Gorge, 2 feet in Navajo and 8 feet in Blue Mesa.

The water released from the upstream reservoirs is projected to raise Lake Powell by an additional 2.6 feet, according to Reclamation hydrologists. That should be enough of a buffer to maintain hydropower production in the short-term, said Christopher Cutler, manager for the agency’s water and power services division. If the basin’s dry conditions continue into 2022, the situation could become more dire.

"There comes a point where we can't engineer our way out of this," Cutler said.

Increasingly bleak forecasts for river flows over the last six months led to the unprecedented move, Cutler said. The 2019 Drought Contingency Plans included the possibility of emergency reservoir releases, but laid out a process in which state leaders in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would be able to give input on how releases would occur from the reservoirs in their respective states. With Powell fast approaching its minimum hydropower elevation, Cutler said releases need to start now.

“We didn’t have time to develop a plan with the states to address this immediate problem,” Cutler said.

In a letter to Interior Department water officials, representatives from the seven U.S. Colorado River basin states said they support the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plans.

“Given the hydrology we are facing, the actions being considered by Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River Basin Region in 2021 will not fully alleviate the effects of the current Drought,” the letter reads. “Therefore, the Basin States believe that continued cooperation is needed to address this drought for 2022 and beyond.”

The low levels are already affecting recreation at Lake Powell. On Saturday the National Park Service halted houseboat launches at the reservoir’s busiest marina, Wahweap, on its southern end. A drop of an additional 4 feet will force the closure of Wahweap’s boat ramp to all motorized watercraft.

Lake Powell is projected to hit its lowest point on record in the next week, when it will drop below 3,555 feet above sea level.

The original story continues below.

Emergency water releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell are underway to preserve the nation’s second-largest reservoir’s ability to generate hydroelectric power.

The Bureau of Reclamation started releasing additional water Thursday from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming. Additional water releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Lake in New Mexico are planned to commence later this year. Emergency releases could last until at least December, and could extend into 2022.

Lake Powell is projected to hit a record low in July. It’s situated on the Colorado River, a drinking and irrigation water source for more than 40 million people in the Southwest. Inflows to the massive reservoir were the third lowest on record in 2021. That followed a meager runoff in 2020.

The releases are meant to maintain some level of hydroelectric power at Lake Powell’s dam, which is under increasing threat due its low level. Glen Canyon Dam’s minimum hydropower level is at 3,490 feet above sea level. It’s currently at 3,557 feet, and is forecast to drop to 3,515 feet by the end of April 2022.

Hydropower production might become unfeasible at elevations above 3,490 feet due to turbine cavitation, when small air bubbles form and cause damage to the machine’s inner workings.

Releases from Flaming Gorge Dam will increase by 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) every day until July 23. Daily releases from Flaming Gorge will rise from 860 cfs to 1310 cfs, “in response to basin-wide drought and storage concerns at Lake Powell,” Reclamation staff told stakeholders this week.

The Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah agreed to possible federal intervention, under emergency circumstances, to boost Lake Powell’s levels in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. This is the first time this portion of the plan has been put into action.

"We are facing unprecedented dry conditions in the Colorado River Basin. More details about conditions as well as planning efforts are forthcoming,” said Rebecca Mitchell, Upper Colorado River Commissioner for the state of Colorado. “What we do know is that the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan calls for increased coordination and planning in situations like this. And those agreements call for the Bureau of Reclamation to closely consult with the Upper Basin States, including Colorado. It has never been more critical to work together."

A federal shortage declaration in the river’s lower basin is expected next month due to record low levels at Lake Powell’s downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead. The two are managed jointly by guidelines agreed to in 2007.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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