Water levels in Lake Powell hit historic lows on April 5, 2022 in Page, Arizona.
Rj Sangosti | MediaNews Group | Denver Post via Getty Images
The federal government on Tuesday announced that it would delay the release of water from one of the Colorado River’s major reservoirs, an unprecedented action that will temporarily address the reservoir’s declining water levels caused by a historic drought in the West.
The decision would allow more water to be stored in Lake Powell, a reservoir located on the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, instead of releasing it downstream into Lake Mead, the river’s other main reservoir.
Action is taken when water levels in both reservoirs have reached their lowest levels on record. The water level in Lake Powell is currently at 3523 feet. If the level drops below 3,490 feet, the so-called minimum capacity basin, Glen Canyon Dam, which supplies electricity about 5.8 million customers in the inner West will no longer be able to produce electricity.
The delay is expected to protect the dam’s operation for the next 12 months, officials said at a press briefing Tuesday, and save about 500,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell. Under a separate plan, officials will also release about 500,000 acre feet of water into Lake Powell from Burning Gorge, a reservoir located upstream on the Utah-Wyoming border.
Officials said the action would help save water, protect the dam’s ability to produce hydropower, and give officials more time to figure out how to operate the dam at lower water levels.
“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado Basin,” Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tania Trujillo told reporters on Tuesday. “But the conditions we see today and what we see on the horizon require us to act quickly.”
Last year, federal officials ordered the first-ever water shutoff in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to more than 40 million people and about 2.5 million acres of arable land in the west. The cuts have mostly affected farmers in Arizona, who use nearly three-quarters of the available water to irrigate their crops.
In April, federal water managers warned seven states that take water from the Colorado River that the government is considering emergency action to address the declining water level in Lake Powell.
Later that month, state representatives sent a letter to Home Affairs agreeing to the proposal and demanding a temporary reduction in emissions from Lake Powell without causing further water outages in any state.
A mega-drought in the western US has caused the region’s driest two decades in at least 1,200 years, and conditions are likely to continue into 2022 and continue for many years. Researchers have calculated that 42% of drought severity is due to anthropogenic climate change.
“Our climate is changing, our actions are responsible, and we must take responsible actions to respond,” Trujillo said. “We must all work together to protect the resources we have and the dwindling supply of water in the Colorado River that our communities depend on.”