Updated July 16, 2021 - 9:08 pm
Federal officials will release extra water from Colorado River system reservoirs this year to prop up the declining water levels in Lake Powell, protecting the reservoir from reaching a level that would prevent the Glen Canyon Dam from generating electricity.
The unprecedented move, announced Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, underscores the dire consequences of a two-decade drought that has plagued the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people in seven states and Mexico.
Projections released by the bureau last week showed a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell’s water level will fall below an elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year, according to a news release.
That elevation is significant because it provides a 35-foot buffer from the minimum water level that allows the Glen Canyon Dam, a major power source for the West, to generate electricity.
By the end of the year, an extra 181,000 acre-feet of water — nearly 60 billion gallons — will be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir and Navajo Reservoir to prop up Lake Powell’s water level by about 3 feet.
Wayne Pullan, the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional director for the Upper Colorado Basin, told reporters that a combination of a lackluster snowpack, dry soil and dry weather has affected how much water flowed into the river.
Dry soil acts as a sponge to soak up runoff before it can reach the river.
The releases from the upstream reservoirs will not affect how much water is released to Lake Mead, which is nearing its first federally declared water shortage. A shortage declaration would force a cut in Nevada’s allocation of water from the lake next year.
Christopher Cutler, manager of water and power services for the bureau, said the releases from the upstream reservoirs are not necessary for Lake Powell to meet its water release obligations to Lake Mead.
This week, the declining health of the Colorado River prompted a coalition of environmentalists, elected leaders and officials from business and agriculture to call for a new approach to managing the vital water source.
The group wants a moratorium on new diversion projects, including a pipeline that would carry billions of gallons of water to southwestern Utah from Lake Powell. It also wants new development to have sustainable water supplies identified before building begins.