Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir and a key source of water and power for much of the West, is more parched than ever. Earlier this month, the lake dropped below 25% capacity, the federal government said, and has also lost 7% of its total potential capacity since 1963.
The past year has been an exercise in watching Lake Powell’s water levels dip to increasingly worrying lows as it passed record after record. Last summer saw a series of firsts, as low levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead triggered the first-ever water cuts on the Colorado River system, as well as emergency water releases from upstream reservoirs.
Lake Is Lowest It’s Ever Been
The lake’s decline in recent years has been even faster than official predictions. Two years ago, officials projected that in March 2022, Lake Powell would hit 1,101 metres in elevation. As of Wednesday, according to a dashboard run by the Bureau of Reclamation, the lake’s levels stood at 1,073.87 metres — about 26.82 m below that projection, and the lowest the lake has ever been.
Spring Runoff Won’t Fix Much
This new low point for the lake comes before the spring runoff season, which officials say will probably raise water levels. But dry conditions could persist even throughout the normally wet spring season. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that much of the western U.S. will experience an abnormally dry spring this year. These conditions add on to the ongoing drought in the Southwest, which researchers labelled in February the worst drought in the region in more than 1,000 years.
“Spring runoff will resolve the deficit in the short term,” Wayne Pullan, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told the AP. “However, our work is not done.”
Climate Change Supercharges Drought
While overuse and poor water allocation have long plagued the West’s troubled water system, climate change is playing a big role too. Research has shown that climate change has juiced up the West’s ongoing drought, attributing more than 40% of drought conditions to human-caused warming. Unseasonably hot temperatures — which also caused some unusual January and February wildfires — in the West this winter have helped create what the Bureau of Reclamation called an “abnormally dry winter season.”
Water Levels Threaten Crucial Dam
The low water levels are not just bad news for the millions of people who rely on the increasingly strained Colorado River system for water — it could mean brownouts in states around the West. If the water levels in Lake Powell fall to 3,490 feet (1,064 meters), the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides power for 5.8 million homes and businesses across several Western states, will no longer be able to generate hydropower. Federal projections released in March predict that there’s a 23% to 27% chance the lake could reach this level, known as the “minimum power pool,” over the next four years.
“We Should Have Been Planning Sooner”
Unfortunately, the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which manages power sales from the dam, seems to be pretty unprepared for the reality of what’s happening. Clayton Palmer, an official with WAPA, told the Arizona Daily Star last month that the idea of the water reaching a point where the dam wouldn’t be able to generate power was, until recently, an “academic” prospect that people discussed “for fun.”
“Events have overtaken us, and we should have been planning sooner and more,” Palmer told the Star. “We didn’t see the lake falling this far this soon.”
A “Warning Bell” Is “Clamoring”
WAPA officials told the Arizona Daily Star they couldn’t guarantee customers wouldn’t lose power or suffer brownouts as Lake Powell keeps declining.
“3,525 is like a warning bell, and it’s clamoring,” Lisa Meiman, a spokesperson for WAPA, told the Star. “It’s meant to be a warning, getting everybody moving in the right direction.”