Lake Powell, Second-Largest Reservoir in U.S., Hits Record Low as Megadrought Worsens

Lake Powell, Second-Largest Reservoir in U.S., Hits Record Low as Megadrought Worsens
Photo: Susan Montoya, AP

Amid the West US’s dire megadrought, there’s more bad news on the water front. Lake Powell, a crucial reservoir on the Colorado River, has now hit its lowest level on record since the reservoir was first filled in the late 1960s.

On Friday, the country’s second-largest reservoir had dropped to 3,555.09 feet (1083.6 meters), according to the Bureau of Reclamation. That’s just below the previous low of 3,555.1 feet (1083.6 meters), set in April 2005. By Saturday, Lake Powell dropped further to 3,554.9 feet (1083.5 meters). The reservoir is now at just 33% of its full capacity and is more than 110 feet (33.5 meters) below the 1981 to 2010 average. Officials have closed some of the lake’s busiest marinas due to the low water levels.

The comparatively tiny change in water level may not seem like a huge deal at first glance (what’s a tenth of a foot?), but it’s a sign of the problems the reservoir is facing and its uncertain future. Thanks to a dry winter and low snowpack, the lake got 2.5 million acre-feet less water than expected this past season. This winter was one of the top-three driest on record in the region. The bad winter and extreme heat this summer are worsening the region’s megadrought. But the long-term trends are dire for the region’s water supply. Climate change could decrease the Colorado River’s flow by as much as 30% come mid-century. At the same time, a burgeoning population — the river supplies water to 40 million — is leading to overuse.

“Basically every drop in the river is being utilised. And so everyone wants a piece of this river and there’s nothing left over,” Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, told KUNC. “The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs.”

The announcement comes less than two weeks after the federal government said it would start emergency releases of water upstream into Lake Powell to make sure that the reservoir could keep generating hydroelectric power. The Glen Canyon Dam, a 1,320-megawatt hydroelectric power plant that produces power for customers in seven different states, sits in Lake Powell and needs water levels to be at least 3,490 feet (1063.8 meters) to function. The first release, which a source told KUNC amounted to an “emergency lever,” began July 15 from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming, releasing 50 cubic feet per second of water into the reservoir each day. The releases, which the government said will run through the end of the year, are projected to lower Flaming Gorge by 4 feet (1.2 meters), Navajo Lake in New Mexico by 2 feet (0.6 meters), and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado by 8 feet (2.4 meters), while upping the level in Lake Powell by 2.6 feet (0.8 meters).

That release will total around 59 billion gallons of water — which still won’t be enough to stop the shrinking reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation told reporters during a press call Friday to discuss the new lows that the lake has dropped 154 feet (46.9 meters) since the late 1990s. That’s enough water to supply 64 million households. It’s also nearly two orders of magnitude greater than this year’s release.

The new lows aren’t the only bad news for the region. Lake Mead, another critical reservoir along the Colorado River, also reached historic lows in June; officials said the lake is expected to dip to a level in August that would trigger shortage conditions for the next year, forcing states that rely on the river to activate water-saving measures. A 24-month study for the future of Lake Powell conducted by the federal government projects that the reservoir could fall below a crucial threshold of 3,525 feet (1,075 meters) by April of next year. If Lake Powell falls below that level, it could affect how some states get their water and trigger possible lawsuits and fights over water use in the region. California’s reservoirs are also in record-low shape, and hydropower could be curtailed at at least one dam if they continue to shrink.

“This is a benchmark moment,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal of the new low at Lake Powell. “And it’s not going to be the last one this summer.”