Climate change, drought are endangering hydropower production from Lake Powell. Is it time to ‘balance the water budget’?

The water degree in Lake Powell was at a file low when rain and snow started to fall throughout the Colorado River Basin in October, soaking dry soils forward of the winter season.

Water managers, who hoped the pattern would construct into an above-average snow yr which may delay a looming water disaster within the Southwest, watched the snowpack drop to close zero in November. Then, after an enormous storm cycle introduced six toes of snow to components of the Rockies across the New 12 months, they once more breathed a sigh of reduction.

Within the weeks since, nevertheless, snowfall all through the watershed has been at a file or near-record low. Lake Powell, which is stuffed to simply over 1 / 4 of its capability, may quickly see its degree drop beneath the important elevation the place the Glen Canyon Dam stops having the ability to generate energy, even after this week’s storms.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operations at Lake Powell, in contrast the snow season to a yo-yo or a curler coaster that has required forecasts to be repeatedly revised.

The most recent projections, Patno instructed a Glen Canyon Dam working group earlier this month, predicted runoff into the Colorado River shall be round 76% of common, and, except extra storms arrive quickly, that would drop to 59% of common.

Glen Canyon Dam hydropower manufacturing in danger

The low vary of possible forecasts, Patno mentioned, present that hydropower technology on the dam might grow to be inconceivable earlier than the top of 2022, marking an unsure new actuality for the 40 million individuals who depend on Colorado River water between Denver and Tijuana.

The dam’s hydroelectric intakes are at 3,470 toes above sea degree, however because the reservoir degree drops beneath 3,525 toes the danger of apparatus injury will increase resulting from the potential for air passing via the generators.

(Bureau of Reclamation) Lake Powell elevation forecast. January 2022.

“A part of the rationale that 3,525 is important,” mentioned Gene Shawcroft, chair of Utah’s Colorado River Authority, “is as a result of … the hydropower generated from Glen Canyon is totally essential from the vitality provide standpoint. There are lots of people that depend on that energy.”

Shawcroft mentioned that the income generated by energy manufacturing on the dam can be a key supply of funding for environmental packages like endangered fish restoration packages on the Colorado and San Juan rivers.

A drought response plan that’s anticipated to be finalized by the Bureau of Reclamation and different events in April will suggest strategies to prop up Lake Powell, which may embrace releases from upstream reservoirs and different measures, Shawcroft mentioned.

Glen Canyon Dam is already releasing much less water than regular into Grand Canyon and on to Lake Mead to maintain Lake Powell’s degree from dropping too quickly.

However environmental teams and a few water managers say the plan, a draft of which which is open to public remark, could also be inadequate for addressing the dimensions of the water issues within the area.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Analyzing tree ring information since 800 A.D., a research from the College of California discovered that the previous 22 years have been the driest the Colorado River has seen in 1,200 years — and the sample is linked to human-caused local weather change.

“The size of response must be proportional to the dimensions of the problem,” mentioned Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate issues for the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Kanzer used a metaphor widespread in water discussions, evaluating water use within the basin to an unbalanced funds that’s draining water “financial savings” in reservoirs far quicker than they are often replenished.

“Now we have to reside inside our means,” he mentioned, noting that water withdrawals from Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, are better than inflows being delivered from Lake Powell. Kanzer believes the drought response settlement “ought to lead to vital discount in decrease basin over use” by California, Arizona and Nevada, however he added that each one customers within the basin might want to scale back water use.

“If we preserve somewhat bit throughout all seven states,” he mentioned, “if all Colorado River water customers pitch in somewhat bit — it’s going to make a giant distinction.”

Correcting previous inequities

Crystal Tulley-Cordova, a principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Division of Water Assets, mentioned the drought has hit the Navajo Nation significantly arduous, growing meals and water insecurity in a area the place over a 3rd of households will not be related to working water.

“What our precedence is, at the start, for the Division of Water Assets is to make sure that Navajo residents have protected, clear water,” she mentioned. As ranges in Lake Powell and the Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River have dropped, Tulley-Cordova mentioned the Navajo Nation is advocating administration plans that shield the viability of water diversions and hydropower manufacturing on the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides properties on the reservation with electrical energy.

For many years, the tribal authorities has been working to safe its water rights via settlements with state and federal governments that had been promised in Nineteenth-century treaties. Congress permitted a water rights settlement for the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation in late 2020 that appropriated $220 million for water tasks.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Chee waited in line for 2 hours to fill his water tank in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on June 22, 2020. Multiple-third of Navajo Nation households lack working water, and the issue is even worse in San Juan County the place half of Navajo Nation residents should haul water. Households fill jugs at communal wells or purchase bottled water from shops — each expensive and time-consuming burdens which have grow to be solely tougher throughout the pandemic and the tribe’s day by day and weekend curfews.

However Tulley-Cordova mentioned elevated development prices associated to the pandemic and different elements have delayed some development tasks, and that there’s nonetheless a protracted street forward.

Thirty federally acknowledged tribes within the Colorado River basin, together with the Navajo Nation, are negotiating with the seven U.S. states of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada and California to replace the century-old Colorado River Compact of 1922 over the subsequent 4 years.

When the unique compact was developed, Tulley-Cordova mentioned, Indigenous individuals weren’t thought-about U.S. residents. “That supplied an inequitable surroundings for having the ability to safe these rights that we are actually securing,” she mentioned, noting that the water rights on paper don’t all the time align with the water truly obtainable within the river.

“Now we have to account for the moist water that’s obtainable now,” she mentioned, “so having a possibility to vary what’s inside these paperwork is vital.”

Will drought response plans show futile?

In a letter despatched to Reclamation final month, John Weisheit and Robin Silver, co-founders of Dwelling Rivers and the Heart for Organic Range respectively, wrote that demand for water within the basin has outpaced provide for over 20 years because the Southwest has been locked in a cycle of megadrought.

The final word purpose of water managers, in keeping with Weisheit and Silver, ought to be to “stability the water funds” by instantly decreasing consumptive water use within the basin by 20%. Quickly tweaking launch schedules from Lake Powell, the letter mentioned, is not going to remedy the underlying difficulty that the basin states are utilizing extra water than is definitely obtainable within the river.

The Glen Canyon Institute, which advocates for the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam, not too long ago despatched an e-mail to its members highlighting a line throughout the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft plan that addresses the identical difficulty.

“If dry situations persist or worsen,” the draft doc states, “obtainable storage volumes for potential changes or releases could also be inadequate to guard the Goal Elevation [of 3,525 feet] at Lake Powell. As such, Drought Response Operations could also be ineffective and due to this fact futile.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lone Rock at Powell, on Sunday, September 6, 2020 and Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Lengthy-term forecasts produced by the Bureau of Reclamation within the early 2000s didn’t consider the local weather change-based fashions obtainable on the time. In 2007, the federal company set interim drought pointers which might be nonetheless largely in impact at this time, utilizing a mannequin that concluded there was lower than a ten% chance that Lake Powell’s elevation would fall beneath 3,570 toes by 2050. The reservoir reached that degree final March.

Different local weather science-based fashions produced 15 years in the past, which had been cited in geochemist James Powell’s 2008 ebook “Deadpool,” proved to be extra correct in hindsight.

Critics say it’s previous time to rethink assumptions which have set water coverage for many years, and the Glen Canyon Institute criticized the Bureau of Reclamation for not mentioning the phrases “local weather change” within the present draft of its drought planning doc.

In a white paper launched earlier this month via Utah State College’s Heart for Colorado River Research, a dozen researchers referred to as for current water administration agreements — that are generally known as the “Regulation of the River” — to be tailored. The researchers pointed to a elementary imbalance between runoff and water demand within the river basin and mentioned “aggressive commitments to water conservation” are important over the subsequent 25 years to stop reservoirs from turning into additional depleted.

Tradition of inexperienced lawns

The overwhelming majority of water in Utah, as is the case in the remainder of the basin, is used for agriculture. However Utah has the very best per capita residential water use within the Southwest, in keeping with some estimates, and Utahns pay the bottom water payments within the seven Colorado River states. Proposals for extra diversions, just like the Lake Powell Pipeline in southwest Utah, would draw much more water from the river.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deserted bouy’s that used to guard the “Three Roof Destroy” from boaters throughout excessive water, sit on the backside of the Escalante River, in Glen Canyon, on Monday, Could 17, 2021.

Shawcroft, who represents Utah in interstate water negotiations, mentioned it’s vital for individuals to know that consuming water provides gained’t be lower off as a part of the drought response this yr. However he acknowledged the basin does face a critical problem that may require those that depend on Colorado River water to vary their conduct.

Shawcroft believes landscaping is one place Utahns may reduce their water use. “How can we cope with our tradition of getting a variety of grass?” he requested. “That, in my thoughts, wants to vary.”

He mentioned he was glad to see that Utahns turned extra snug with having brown spots on their lawns final summer season, when the runoff was round 30% of common.

“There are a selection of panorama alternatives that use considerably much less water than the standard turf from wall to wall,” Shawcroft mentioned. “Builders are catching on to that.”

“So we’re headed in the best route,” he added. “I simply hope we’re headed quick sufficient.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps maintain him writing tales like this one; please take into account making a tax-deductible present of any quantity at this time by clicking right here.

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