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Lake Powell is in crisis: A conversation with Colorado River reporter Alex Hager

Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, is strained by more than two decades of drought.

Lake Powell is in crisis. So reports KUNC’s Alex Hager, who covers the Colorado River – the most important body of water for 40 million people across the Southwest. He says the nation’s second largest reservoir is strained by more than two decades of drought. Just last month, water in Lake Powell dipped below its target elevation. Now, the federal government is moving forward with emergency cutbacks for several states.

For Rocky Mountain Community Radio, KZMU Moab’s Molly Marcello sat down with Hager to talk through the wide-ranging implications.

Molly Marcello, KZMU News: So there’s been a lot of attention on Lake Powell, especially in the last few months. Tell us why.

Alex Hager: Lake Powell is the nation’s second largest reservoir and is a really critical piece of infrastructure in storing water from the upper half of the Colorado River Basin, before it gets sent down to the bottom half. And the reason that it’s in the headlines right now is because it is at the lowest point it has been ever. And that is part of a longer trend, where we’ve seen it dropping for months and years. But right now it’s getting to some really critical thresholds. It very recently dipped below for the first time ever, a point at which the agencies in charge said, ‘alright, we are getting dangerously close to losing the ability to generate hydropower at the Glen Canyon Dam,’ which obviously has never happened before.

"It is the last chance to utilize this buffer zone to come up with a plan to keep water levels high enough that we can keep generating hydropower," says Hager.
The Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell. "It is the last chance to utilize this buffer zone to come up with a plan to keep water levels high enough that we can keep generating hydropower," says Hager.

So basically, it dipped below this threshold, which a lot of people kind of identify as the alarm bell. So nothing physically changes there, but it is the last chance to utilize this buffer zone to come up with a plan to keep water levels high enough that we can keep generating hydropower. And, more importantly, to potentially avoid risking damage to the hydropower infrastructure. Because if water gets too low, and air pockets get in those turbines, that could also be a problem.

So the reason that it is truly in the headlines right now is because the federal government came out with a proposal to help top up those levels in Lake Powell. And it’s pretty unprecedented. I mean, we are in a world and in a Colorado River Basin where unprecedented gets tossed around an awful lot. And this is no exception. But basically, the federal government’s coming in and saying, ‘we are going to have sort of an emergency reduction of the amount of water given to California and Nevada and Arizona, which are the states in the lower basin, so we can keep some of that water in Lake Powell further upstream.’ And it is something that has not happened before, a lot of times the states and sometimes the tribes involved are the leaders in deciding who gets how much water. But I’ve talked to some folks who said this situation is dire enough that it is a rare exception, where the federal government is going to potentially make a move here. And it’s just in the proposal stage right now. But it would mean that an awful lot of water – more than enough water to feed half a million homes for a year – is going to be taken out of the allocation for California, Nevada and Arizona and kept upstream just to keep water running through the turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam.

KZMU News: Now, you said unprecedented is being thrown around a lot in these conversations. Have you have you spoken to people – and there are quite a few out there – who have seen the writing on the wall, who have seen this situation coming?

Hager: Yeah, folks have said that this is not coming out of nowhere. It is often referred to as a slow moving crisis. Climate change has been driving more than 20 years of drought. We’re in year 23 of drought in the Colorado River Basin. And all of the climate scientists have pointed out the reasons why that’s happening and have pointed out a long trajectory that shows it getting worse over time. And people who are critics of the federal and state agencies running this kind of thing, say they should have taken action sooner. And I have talked to some folks who said there was not enough action taken even when the science laid out exactly the future we’re living right now. And so the big problem here is that the water is probably not coming back. Not only are we in an extended drought, but it is likely that it is going to continue. And so the real challenge is not figuring out how to get more water there – because more water isn’t going to show up – it’s how to divvy up a shrinking supply. There’s a lot of people who depend on it. And all of the state agencies in charge of deciding who gets to use how much are not going to leap at the opportunity to sacrifice some of their allocation. So it’s a little bit of a game of figuring out how much can each state keep for themselves, while sacrificing just enough to make a collaborative effort to support the common good. And the common good right now means keeping enough water in Lake Powell to keep it running through the Grand Canyon Dam.

KZMU News: Yeah, the common good for right now. What about conversations about the future of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam and moving beyond this infrastructure? Do you think that is a topic that is too big to tackle right now?

Hager: It is the topic that everyone has to tackle. There is no way around it. So this move to keep a little bit more water in Lake Powell is, you know, a bit of a Band-Aid measure, it is not going to be the silver bullet that pulls us out of the crisis in the Colorado River Basin. There have been other patchwork, temporary measures like this before. The big challenge is coming up with something a little bit more permanent…The current rules for how the Colorado River is managed – those expire in 2026. So between now and then, the seven states and the 30 tribes and the federal government who make decisions about where the water goes and how much everyone’s going to get, they have to put their heads together and come up with new rules before then, and they are playing in an arena where the amount of water that is at their disposal is smaller than it was before and going to keep shrinking.

KZMU News: You know, we have a lot of interest here in Moab in Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. You probably are aware of the history of activism that we have here related to the dam. And kind of in a similar vein, one of our locals has a friendly betting pool about when hydropower will stop at Glen Canyon Dam, and I want your perspective on it. Because you talk to people who are very informed about that potential scenario.

Hager: Well, just like I will not go on the radio airwaves and tell you who to put your money on in terms of who’s going win the World Series, I cannot tell you specifically where to put your money in terms of when we might dip too low to generate hydropower at the Grand Canyon Dam. But I can’t tell you that I talked to some folks who said it is not hard to imagine that it will be within the course of the next year to year and a half. And it’s harder to get a little bit more specific than that, especially when you’re talking to someone who is tied up in the decision making. But largely the perception is that it is in the relatively immediate future. This is not a far-out thing. So I would say from what I’ve heard, the common consensus seems to be somewhere in the 12-to-18-month range.

KZMU News: And as a reporter focused on the Colorado River, who are the people that you’re watching, or what are the agencies that you’re watching as this conversation unfolds?

Hager: Well, the big one at the federal level is the US Bureau of Reclamation, they are the top federal agency in charge of water. The other thing is going to be the seventh basin states. So in the lower basin, it’s going to be Arizona, Nevada and California. In the upper basin, you’ve got Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Those states are the ones that really are going to put their heads together at the table. The other thing too is we’ve got 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin for a long time they have been excluded from decisions about who gets to use water. But there has been a bit of a reckoning on that in the last few years. And I would expect that this round of negotiations is going to include a larger presence of Native and tribal voices than there has been in the past. But between the US Bureau of Reclamation, the seven states and those tribes, that’s who I’d be keeping an eye on.

But amid all of this, you’ve got to remember that the extent of water’s influence in this region of the country and the Colorado River’s influence – it’s very wide. Like I said – 40 million people. I mean, the only reason that any corner of this country can put fresh lettuce on the table in the middle of December is because we have water going to some of the hottest driest parts of the country to grow it in Arizona and in California. It is recreators, it is ecosystems, it is home development it is agriculture, it is suburban homes and everywhere in between. So ultimately, there are a lot of different people who have a vested interest in how this happens. And they’re going to be trying to kind of lobby for their interest to be protected.

KZMU News: Is there anything else that you think is pertinent to mention about the future of Lake Powell or your coverage?

Hager: Yeah, when we’re keeping an eye on Lake Powell, it is important to remember that the levels fluctuate seasonally a little bit. So when we’re talking about the immediate future, even though things are at an all-time low right now the next few months will see Lake Powell levels going up a bit because most of the water in the Colorado River Basin – and by that virtue most of the water in Lake Powell – comes from high mountain snowmelt. So all of this snow that’s held up high in the Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming, it is going to start trickling down into rivers. In the long term, we’re looking at less snow than there used to be. This year is right around average, but there’s a lot of factors like dry soil that mean not all of that water is going to make it into the river. So that is all to say that there will be a temporary boost to the levels of Lake Powell, but not one that is going to really right the ship in terms of getting the Colorado River Basin out of crisis. So as you’re looking at like water levels in Lake Powell it’s important to remember that they will go up a bit and then will return to going back down.

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