Water conservation

Lake Powell is dangerously close to falling too low, Grand County could suffer

Lake Powell plunged below 3,525 feet for the first time in history. The man-made reservoir, seen here near Bullfrog on March 15, 2022, provides water and electricity to the southwest.
National Park Service/Courtesy Photo

For the first time in history, Lake Powell plunged below 3,525 feet. This artificial reservoir provides water and electricity to the southwest. The normal reservoir capacity is 3,700 feet. And experts agree that its current level is the “alarm bell” signaling agencies to act to save the lake. The crisis is so imminent that on April 8, the United States Department of the Interior issued an emergency request to Arizona, Nevada and California, asking them to reduce their water deliveries to prevent the lake Powell does not descend to too dangerous a level. The states agreed to the proposed cuts on April 22.

Lake Powell, for all its present importance, had a complicated creation. During the 1940s and 1950s, the United States Bureau of Reclamation planned to dam the Colorado River, to supply more water to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California. The goal was to fulfill the obligation of the upper basin states to supply them with water via the Colorado River.

The Sierra Club, led by David Brower, successfully protested the dam site because it would overwhelm the beautiful landscape of a natural park. Instead, the government moved the dam site to Glen Canyon, on the border of Utah and Arizona. Here they began construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which has a capacity of 3,700 feet of water. When Brower visited Glen Canyon before it flooded, he was struck that it was full of natural sandstone features, towering cliffs, and native sites, just as the site originally proposed for the dam had been. Glen Canyon is known as the “Lost National Park”.

So America’s second-largest reservoir was born out of a battle to supply water to the lower basin and draw as much as possible from the Colorado River. Although Brower lamented Powell’s creation, he could never have imagined that in 2022 the lake would face a crisis that could end its ability to provide water and electricity to millions. of people across the country and in part of Mexico.

If the lake drops below 3,490 feet, it is unknown how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that depend on it. Lake Powell not only provides water to millions of Americans, it also provides electricity through the turbines of the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydroelectricity. All states in the Colorado Basin are fed by the dam.

Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it is closely related. Forty million people from Wyoming to Mexico depend on water from the Colorado River, including all residents of Grand County. When someone turns on the tap here, they receive the same water that will eventually be sent to Lake Powell for a California (or other area) resident.

“We all depend on water from the West Slope, and we need to keep the West Slope water levels healthy,” Klancke said.

The Colorado River Compact, created in 1922, stipulates that the waters of the upper basin states (of which Colorado is a part) are to be shared by the lower basin states. The Colorado River flows from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, and Lake Powell was created to reserve that water and fulfill covenant obligations.

“The problem with the pact now is that the reserves are drying up,” Klancke said. “The pact decided how the water was going to be shared. It was created during a very wet period when 15 million acre-feet crossed the river. Now that’s more like 11 million acre-feet, but (the upper basin) still has to share 7.5 million acre-feet. We can no longer offer these 7.5 million.

Klancke believes the lower basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, which could reduce the water supply of upper basin states like Colorado.

“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be reduced to make up the difference,” he said. “I’m afraid they’re attacking our agricultural rights first…and (agriculture) is a big part of our economy.”

Lake Powell plunged below 3,525 feet for the first time in history. The man-made reservoir, seen here Dominguez Butte in June 2021, provides water and electricity to the southwest.
National Park Service/Courtesy Photo

There were 290 operating farms in Grand County in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture. In Colorado, there were 38,700 farms and ranches in 2020.

“If herders don’t have enough water, they can’t produce enough hay and they can’t feed their cattle,” Klancke said. The importance of agriculture is undeniable; crops and livestock in an irrigated field will one day feed us all.

Klancke thinks there are many solutions to Lake Powell’s scarcity besides reducing agricultural use.

“We need to find a way to use and appropriate water intelligently,” he said. “How can the upper basin use less water to supply water to the lower basin? »

An example would be less irrigation of Front Range lawns.

“The front range was built on a desert, but everywhere they grow Kentucky bluegrass. They water it in a desert, trying to make it green,” Klancke said.

Kentucky bluegrass, an icon of a well-kept suburban lawn, is not native to Colorado and requires a lot of irrigation. Klancke believes watering lawns like these is the “low hanging fruit” that water users can get rid of first. This first step in conservation is simple, but can go a long way.

“If we send less water to Front Range, it can really boost our rivers here on the West Slope,” Klancke said.

He added that there are also tactics Colorado farmers can adopt to use their water wisely.

“Instead of planting maize here, we can plant crops that require less irrigation,” he said.

Farmers can also prepare for temporary water reductions by studying the effects of less irrigation. This is exactly what several ranchers did during a feasibility study of demand management in the Colorado River basin. They drained their fields and realized that their fallow field was not the end of the ranch. When they started watering again, the fields bloomed again.

Organizations such as the Colorado Water Trust are also working to restore flow to rivers in need, such as Colorado.

“Dry conditions impacting water users and storage throughout the Colorado River Basin make our projects even more important, but create great uncertainty for us and our partners,” said Kate Ryan, Director of Programs and Senior Counsel at Colorado Water. Trust. “We are working with partners such as the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users to ensure that there are multi-use supplies in our state (such as) irrigation deliveries and the production of hydroelectricity”.

According to Klancke, there is also a small amount of good news in this story – more snowmelt from Colorado is expected to flow downstream from the reservoir.

“Last year we had almost 100% of the average snowpack, but due to extremely dry soil moisture conditions, only about 34% of that snowpack survived. This year we have similar snow conditions, but more than 60% should reach Lake Powell,” Klancke said.

Other good news: on April 22, the states of the Upper Basin united in response to the emergency request from the Ministry of the Interior. They decided to release 500,000 acre-feet of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to flow to Lake Powell, starting May 1. Water from Flaming Gorge will ensure continued hydroelectric power generation in Powell and potable water will continue to flow to the nearby town. of Page, Arizona, with its Navajo community of LeChee. Both of these disasters could occur if Powell levels were allowed to fall below 3,490 feet.

The additional 500,000 acre-feet will help buffer Lake Powell levels over time. Klanke, however, cautioned against getting too optimistic.

“We are still in a 20-year drought cycle,” he said, even as experts predict a hotter, drier climate around the world.

“Colorado’s water users are on the front lines of climate change and will continue to face years of dry hydrology, poor soil moisture and aridification,” said Sara Leonard, director of marketing and communications. from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “This means that our water users face water shortages almost every year.”

With the threat of climate change looming ever greater, Lake Powell levels will likely never return to where they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, rafters crossing the low waters of Lake Powell can make out the native rock carvings on the recently exposed sandstone walls, just as Brower did before the canyon flooded 50 years ago.