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Lake Powell: Water from upstream reservoirs cannot save reservoir indefinitely, officers say


Upstream reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin won’t have sufficient water to maintain Lake Powell above a vital threshold indefinitely, federal officers have warned in latest weeks, because the West’s ongoing megadrought saps water from throughout the West.

The Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Inexperienced River, which this yr is releasing an enormous quantity of water downstream to assist Lake Powell, might solely have sufficient water left for 2 extra related emergency releases, US Bureau of Reclamation officers instructed CNN, although they’ve but to completely mannequin the state of affairs.

Federal officers took emergency steps in Might to make use of water from upstream reservoirs to spice up Lake Powell’s stage and purchase the encircling communities extra time to plan for the chance the reservoir will quickly fall too low for the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower.

The dam is a key supply of power within the area, producing energy for as many as 5.8 million houses and companies in seven states, and is at excessive danger of being pressured offline ought to the lake’s stage drop under 3,490 ft above sea stage.

Lake Powell’s water stage was at round 3,529 ft as of Thursday, or 24% full.

Water managers have labored arduous to stop Powell from falling under its vital threshold. Their first step was to launch extra water from upstream reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin, like Flaming Gorge. The second was to carry again water in Lake Powell itself as an alternative of sending it downstream to Lake Mead, which is the biggest reservoir within the nation.

However utilizing water from Flaming Gorge to maintain Lake Powell afloat was simply “a buffer,” in response to Jim Prairie, the company’s Higher Colorado Basin analysis and modeling group chief, and could not be a long-term answer. Prairie famous in August, based mostly on its water stage on the time, Flaming Gorge would solely be capable to deal with two extra related emergency releases.

Visitors watch the sunrise over Lake Powell, the country's second-largest reservoir.  Powell was around 24% full this week.

“What this [process] is doing is simply buffering us for a yr, and we most likely have a possibility to try this perhaps two extra occasions, after which there can be no extra capability,” Prairie mentioned. “So one thing else should fill that 500,000 acre-feet, another mechanism.”

Water deliveries from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell are being made in various quantities every month to meet a 500,000 acre-feet complete by the tip of April 2023, in response to the bureau. Due to the discharge, the extent in Flaming Gorge is predicted to drop by roughly 9 ft, although it is going to assist enhance Lake Powell’s elevation by round 16 ft.

Prairie mentioned the larger problem is to search out long-term options to the basin’s disaster.

“And that is actually the problem that is being put ahead to all of the [Colorado River] Basin states,” he added. “How can we collaborate and work collectively to search out these methods to have the ability to present that extra wants at these reservoirs if we need to preserve them?”

Eric Kuhn, a retired former supervisor of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, instructed CNN that this isn’t a shock in any respect.

“There’s actually just one upstream reservoir — Flaming Gorge — that has any vital capability,” Kuhn mentioned. “And so they’ve used it two years in a row to the tune of about 700,000 acre ft.”

Notably, Prairie’s outlook for Flaming Gorge doesn’t take into consideration future climate within the West. For example, a wetter-than-average winter this yr, which might complement all of the reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin, may deny the necessity for emergency releases.

However Kuhn mentioned that would not be all excellent news for Lake Powell.

“Refilling these reservoirs which have been drained comes first, that is the place the water goes first,” Kuhn mentioned. “In case you rob Peter to pay Paul, the following time now we have a good runoff, a whole lot of water is gonna go to restoration storage in these upstream reservoirs which can scale back the influx to Powell, so it reduces the speed of restoration of Powell in a barely above common, wetter yr.”

Justin Mankin, co-lead of the Nationwide Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Job Drive, beforehand instructed CNN managing water within the Colorado River Basin by way of all of its reservoirs is “type of just like the central financial institution of an economic system, drawing cash from native banks to type of hold the economic system afloat.”

“Lake Powell is the central financial institution of the Colorado River Basin,” Mankin mentioned. “Possibly that is workable for a short while, however similar to a family, the longer it is in debt, the more durable it will get. And it is actually the identical factor with these reservoirs.”

The Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River in the Colorado River Basin.

With out the emergency steps it took this yr, together with the Flaming Gorge releases, the bureau estimated there was a few 25% probability the Glen Canyon Dam may have stopped producing hydropower by January.

“Everybody depends on the collective storage of the watershed,” Jack Schmidt, director of the Middle for Colorado River Research at Utah State College, instructed CNN. “The first problem is the whole storage in your entire system in relation.”

For the remainder of the yr, the water releases from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa reservoirs are set to proceed till October; in the meantime, Navajo Lake on the Colorado-New Mexico border will ramp up its releases in November and December. Because of these emergency releases, every reservoir will see a serious plunge: 4 ft at Flaming Gorge; eight ft at Blue Mesa; and two ft in Navajo Lake.

Schmidt mentioned it is very important keep in mind all of the reservoirs are related. The entire capability of all federal reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin is about 58 million acre ft, 50 million of which is Lake Powell and Lake Mead mixed.

“If one provides all the water in all the reservoirs, then the system is now at 34% of capability,” Schmidt mentioned.

The selections made for Lake Powell will all the time have an effect on its downstream neighbor, Lake Mead. Due to Lake Mead’s low stage, the federal authorities in August introduced extra water cuts for the Southwest, which can begin in January 2023.

The Colorado River Basin gives water and electrical energy for greater than 40 million individuals dwelling throughout seven Western states and Mexico, together with households, farms, ranches and native communities.

CORRECTION: An earlier model of this story contained a photograph caption that listed an incorrect location for the Flaming Gorge Dam. It’s on the Inexperienced River.


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