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Amid dropping water levels in Lake Powell, another 'short-term fix' is on the way

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which stores water in Wyoming and Utah, is poised to release 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream. The releases are designed to prop up sagging levels in Lake Powell, which could dip too low to generate hydropower.
Ted Wood
The Water Desk
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which stores water in Wyoming and Utah, is poised to release 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream. The releases are designed to prop up sagging levels in Lake Powell, which could dip too low to generate hydropower.

A new plan will release 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, a measure designed to stave off dropping levels in Lake Powell. The releases come as a response to record lows in Powell, which is on course to drop too low to generate hydropower at the Glen Canyon dam. The Drought Response Operations Plan brings together the four states of the upper Colorado River basin – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – and the federal government.

The move is the latest in a patchwork of contingency measures to breathe life into the nation’s second-largest reservoir, which has been crippled by more than two decades of drought. The past three years have been acutely dry, forcing unprecedented steps to avert catastrophe along the Colorado River, which supplies water for more than 40 million people across the Southwest.

“Right now, our focus is 100% on this poor hydrology and trying to figure out how we manage the reservoirs without having them go into it into a situation where there's nothing left to control,” said Gene Shawcroft, Colorado River Commissioner of Utah, and one of the plan’s signatories.

Shawcroft lauded a spirit of collaboration between the upper basin states. While a federal agency – the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – “had the pen most of the time,” Shawcroft said the four states were involved in every word of the agreement and worked collaboratively so the federal government was not in greater control of their fates.

“I think everybody's pretty comfortable that this is, at this moment in time, the best solution we have at our disposal,” he said.

The Bureau of Reclamation declined multiple requests for an interview, but wrote that the plan will not be formalized until it receives official approval from the Secretary of the Interior.

The latest projections for water levels in Lake Powell show they may get as close to 11 feet away from the hydropower cutoff in less than a year, even with the new round of releases.

The new plan leaves the door open for even more releases, signaling that the upper basin may need to tap further into its stash for the sake of Lake Powell. Additional water could come from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Reservoir in Colorado and New Mexico. Those reservoirs are closer to empty than Flaming Gorge, which straddles the border between Utah and Wyoming.

Similar releases took place in 2021, when Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo all sent water downstream to help avert hydropower shutoffs in Lake Powell.

This week’s announcement comes on the heels of another high-profile move that could put 480,000 more acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, a proposal by the Department of the Interior that would cut back on allocations to California, Arizona and Nevada. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

Both are seen as band-aid measures, standing in place until more water arrives in the basin, or until states, tribes and the federal government agree to a more permanent strategy to divvy up the shrinking supply.

“This is a short-term fix, really,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director at Western Resource Advocates. “You can't do this every year. You won't be able to do the same volume next year, likely. Because you're kind of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”

Snowpack in the Colorado River basin is largely near or below average, spelling out another dry year that is unlikely to bring quick relief to the parched region and its reservoirs. Snowmelt from high-mountain regions of Colorado and Wyoming provides the majority of the water in the basin. Climate scientists have mapped out a dire vision of the future, in which climate change exacerbates an already-historic drought and leaves a growing region even more strained for water.

“I don't see winners and losers,” Miller said. “I see good effort, collaborative steps to address a really urgent situation. But I think I also see the fact that the river and everyone are still in a tough spot, and it could get stickier.”

This plan was made possible by a 2019 drought response agreement, which guides the upper basin through responses to diminishing water levels. Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, gave positive reviews of the upcoming Flaming Gorge releases, but cautioned that more attention is needed for permanent fixes.

“Unfortunately, I think this year and the very low reservoirs has done us a disservice because it has taken the ball off a long-term issue,” Kuhn said. “Hopefully now we'll get back to the renegotiation of the guidelines and we're not going to have to rely on these temporary measures.”

The Colorado River’s managers are on the hook to come up with a new set of operating rules before 2026, when the current guidelines expire.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Alex Hager