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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Feds pause some Flaming Gorge water releases amid a snowy winter for the Colorado River

This is an image of Flaming Gorge Reservoir at golden hour. It shows the Colorado River flowing through a mountainous area.
Ted Wood
The Water Desk
Water in the Colorado River system fills Flaming Gorge Reservoir on June 26, 2021. Federal authorities chose to suspend extra water releases about two months early. Water from Flaming Gorge is used to prop up Lake Powell.

After states in the Colorado River's Upper Basin filed a request with the Bureau of Reclamation, ramped up water releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir have been suspended about two months early.

In a letter sent to the federal agency, the group of Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – said this winter has been particularly wet, and releases should be paused so the runoff can help refill Flaming Gorge. The paused schedule of releases is part of the 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement.

Federal authorities have drawn from Flaming Gorge, located in the northeast corner of Utah and the southwest corner of Wyoming, to prop up Lake Powell. Dropping water levels in Powell – the nation’s second largest reservoir – are threatening the ability to generate hydropower within Glen Canyon Dam.

Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are asking the Bureau of Reclamation to pause water releases at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which has been used to help prop up Lake Powell.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects the move to leave an additional 36,000 to 37,000 acre-feet of water in Flaming Gorge after releases were suspended on Tuesday, March 7. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

"We're encouraged that Reclamation has begun to suspend Drought Response Operations releases from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell,” wrote Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, in an email to KUNC,“but Utah's priority is to put back all water previously released, approximately 588,000 acre feet, into [Flaming] Gorge as soon as possible given the favorable hydrology."

The decision to suspend releases follows a public back-and-forth between groups of states that use water from the Colorado River. The Upper Basin and Lower Basin are often at odds about water management decisions, and the recent debate over Flaming Gorge represents a minor flare-up amid larger tensions about how to share the Colorado River’s supply, which is shrinking due to climate change.

Water managers in the Upper Colorado River Basin have faced increasing pressure to cut back on the region's water use. Water levels at the Upper Basin's largest reservoir, Lake Powell, are at record lows. Recent water conservation efforts have aimed to prop up the reservoir and avert the shutdown of hydropower generators within.
Alex Hager
Glen Canyon Dam holds back Lake Powell on November 2, 2022. Water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir is sent downstream to prop up Powell, the nation's second largest reservoir. Dropping levels in Powell threaten the ability to generate hydropower within the dam.

A letter from the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California agreed with the Upper Basin proposal, but asked the federal government to exercise caution before making any decisions. Lower Basin leaders asked Reclamation to leave the door open for future releases, which may be needed later this year if that boosted runoff doesn’t materialize. They also wanted to be consulted as part of the process to make decisions about Flaming Gorge and other similar reservoir releases.

This winter has brought heavy snow to high-altitude sections of Colorado, where the Colorado River gets its start. Some scientists worry that extraordinarily warm temperatures and dry soil could prevent some of that snow from reaching streams, rivers and reservoirs. Climate experts say this strong winter will provide a short-term boost for water storage along the Colorado River, but won’t be enough to substantively turn around a 23-year megadrought that has shrunk the region’s supplies.

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

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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