The latest megadasa in the West, an alarm bell has just rung. The Land Reclamation Institute has started an emergency discharge of water from the reservoir upstream Colorado River this week in an effort to keep Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir, full enough to continue hydropower production.
The artificial lake, located along the crucial Colorado River, has reached its lowest level in decades due to extreme heat and severe drought that has gripped the region and overuse. The reservoir is projected to reach a critical new minimum (1,075 meters) by April 2022, just 25 feet (7.6 meters) above the level at which hydropower can no longer be generated. Land Reclamation Office he said emergency discharges from the upstream reservoir – which include the Flaming Gorge reservoir in Wyoming, the Blue Mesa reservoir in Colorado and the Navajo reservoir in New Mexico – will continue until December and could last next year.
Low water levels in Lake Powell are not just a problem for industry and cities that rely on reservoir water. It’s also a problem for the Glen Canyon Dam, a Hydropower plant with a capacity of 1,320 megawatts which produces electricity that is distributed to customers in seven different states. The Land Reclamation Bureau said discharges from Flaming Gorge, which begin this month, will increase water levels by 50 cubic feet (1.4 cubic meters) per second each day and will last until July 23rd.
The Glen Canyon Dam is not the only hydroelectric plant facing Western megadose problems. Lake Oroville, California’s largest reservoir, has dropped so low this summer during the heat in the state that officials say they may have to turn off the hydropower plant there.
“We are facing unprecedented dry conditions in the Colorado River Basin, Rebecca Mitchell, Upper Colorado Commissioner for the State of Colorado, said for KUNC. “More details are forthcoming about the conditions, as well as the planning efforts. What we do know is that the Upper Basin Drought Plan requires increased coordination and planning in such situations. And those agreements call on the Land Reclamation Bureau to consult closely with the states of the upper basin, including Colorado. It has never been more critical to collaborate. “
Release of water from upstream reservoirs during the megadose is a big deal; as a source said KUNC reporter Luke Runyon, “The complaint just pulled the emergency lever.” The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million people in states in the southwest. Lake Powell was built in the early 1960s, to create a reservoir to supply states along the upper reaches of the river, to supply water to states in the lower reaches of the river, as part of a 100-year water agreement that dictates how river water will be distributed. But the historical overexploitation of river resources paired with climate change – which, studies have shown, could reduce the flow by as much as 30% by 2050 – meant that the flow of the river is rapidly declining.
Lake Powell’s water levels affect not only hydropower, but also how water is distributed across the southwest. Lake Mead, another large reservoir downstream on the river, fell to its lowest level in history in June. Officials plan to declare water scarcity conditions in August that would trigger water-saving measures in surrounding states. If Lake Powell falls below that crucial threshold of 3,525 feet to be reached next spring, it could affect the way the lower states get their water – and initiate potential lawsuits and fights over who has the right to use the water from the river.
In 2019, seven states that rely on the river have entered into an emergency plan for what will happen if Lake Powell falls below the threshold. Part of the extreme scenario of this plan was an emergency discharge from upstream reservoirs, like the type of discharge that the Land Reclamation Office decided to do this month.
If the water level falls below 3,525 feet in Lake Powell and the agreement falls apart, it “could potentially lead to litigation in seven states, which we have never seen before. [the] The Colorado River, ”Amy Ostdiek, deputy head of the federal, interstate, and water information department of the Colorado Water Board, told Colorado Public Radio. “Which would create a lot of uncertainty. It would probably be a very long, time-consuming process. “
By the way, the reservoirs of the West are under increasing pressure. Satellite images show many in decline from year to year. The quality of drinking water suffers, and at least one city has committed to it moratorium on new construction because water resources are dangerously low. Not even natural water bodies like the Great Salt Lake in Utah have escaped from the megadose either dipping to record the lowest levels.