Officials Avoid Sacrificing Lake Powell Sacred Cow

As Upper Basin Avoids Real Cuts Again.

Community Voices

A coalition of Colorado River activists criticized the federal government and seven states for prioritizing an agreement that fails to meaningfully reduce consumptive use across the Colorado River Basin by substantial amounts while prioritizing propping up the water-wasting Glen Canyon Dam.

A letter signed by six of the seven Colorado River Basin states asks the Bureau of Reclamation to study various modeling proposals for future reservoir elevations. The letter outlines potential new cuts but avoids reducing use that would prevent the looming water delivery crisis at Glen Canyon Dam –– which would prevent providing enough water to lower basin water users through the Grand Canyon to satisfy Compact obligations.

Yesterday’s deal would not stabilize the system, but it would make Upper Basin water managers happy for years to come. The proposal’s priority right now is propping up Lake Powell and covering up an open secret: Glen Canyon Dam is a liability to our water supply, our prized ecosystems, and the future of the Colorado River.

Flow modeling by the Bureau of Reclamation demonstrates that Lake Powell — within the next two years — could reach water levels that jeopardize the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to deliver water downstream via its archaic plumbing system. The dam was never engineered to operate at low water levels, but the Bureau’s denial of climate change over the last 10 years has left the agency fundamentally unprepared to operate in the Basin’s new aridification paradigm.

“Two decades of climate change denial and a failure to be transparent about the archaic plumbing problems inside Glen Canyon Dam are dooming the water supply for 25 million Americans downstream of this antique,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

In August, Bureau of Reclamation officials announced it was going to “accelerate ongoing maintenance actions and studies” to investigate the reliability of Glen Canyon Dam’s river outlet works, which are commonly referred to as bypass tubes. But the public has received no meaningful updates since August.

“Instead of bending over backwards to prop up Lake Powell, officials should be making plans to save Lake Mead and utilize Glen Canyon as a backup facility,” said Eric Balken, executive director of Glen Canyon Institute. “There’s just not enough water to save both reservoirs, and Mead is more vital to the Basin,” said Balken.

“Taking extraordinary measures to prop up Lake Powell won’t save the system, Grand Canyon, and endangered species in the long run,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers. “The public needs to understand that there are other ways to manage the river rather than being whipsawed crisis after crisis. This is not the way.”

While the seven Basin States continue to work toward cutting some 4 million acre-feet of consumption from the river, the public has few assurances that the plumbing problems are being solved inside Glen Canyon Dam to ensure water can be delivered to the Lower Basin through the Grand Canyon in sufficient quantities to meet Compact obligations.

Federal officials announced they would reduce releases from Lake Powell by 480,000 acre-feet –– an effort authorized under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and have vowed to hold back more than 520,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead through April 2023. But these reductions in water flows do not address the plumbing problems inside Glen Canyon Dam.

Scientists predict that the Colorado River’s flows will continue to decrease in the coming decades — posing more long-term problems at Glen Canyon Dam and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin. The Colorado River has experienced a 20% drop in water flows from climate change’s shrinking of headwater snowpacks. Snowmelt forms the majority of the water supply in the Colorado River Basin.

A report published in July 2022 by the Utah Rivers Council, the Glen Canyon Institute, and the Great Basin Water Network summarized the critical plumbing problems inside Glen Canyon Dam which threaten downstream water supplies and Grand Canyon flows over the next few years. The report is available here.

Kyle Roerink writes columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. Kyle is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He lives in Reno. Support his writing.

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