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New plan lays out ways to protect Lake Powell from drought

 The Glen Canyon Dam is an important source of hydropower for the West.
Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation
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The Glen Canyon Dam is an important source of hydropower for the West.

The framework for how Upper Colorado River Basin states will respond to low water levels at Lake Powell is now out for public review.

It’s called the Drought Response Operations Plan, which is part of the larger Drought Contingency Plan signed in 2019. These policies were put in place because of the troubling hydrology in the region.

The four Upper Basin states, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, are working with federal agencies to keep Lake Powell above critical levels. The drought response plan is triggered when Lake Powell’s elevation hits 3,525 feet. Just 35 feet below that is the lowest water level that still allows the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower.

The reservoir is currently sitting just under 27% full or around 3,531 feet.

The plan will be modified yearly depending on the water levels in the Colorado River Basin. It could include releases from reservoirs in the Upper Basin, including Flaming Gorge on the border of Utah and Wyoming.

Rod Smith, an attorney with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said this has been in the works since the Drought Response Operations Agreement was signed in 2019. He said they thought they’d have more time to lay out the framework, but last year sped up the process.

“What we saw instead were some particularly dry springtime numbers in 2021,” he said during a virtual presentation Friday afternoon. “We did not have as much time at that point relative to when we were projected to 3,525 [feet]. So it accelerated things a lot.”

Last summer, there were emergency releases from upstream reservoirs. Already this year, monthly water releases have been adjusted.

The plan released Friday is a framework for how things will operate. It doesn’t include specifics because officials are waiting to see the totals for winter and spring precipitation.

“We've been yo-yoing between excellent October, horrible November, great December. And now we're just kind of at a blah January,” Smith said. “That's the reason we don't have operational proposals yet, more to come on that.”

The draft plan is open for public comment until Feb. 17. It’s expected to be completed in April.

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