The Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday announced its new plan to keep Lake Powell alive and Glen Canyon Dam operational. “To protect Lake Powell, more water will flow into the lake from upstream reservoirs and less water will be released downstream,” the agency wrote in a press release. To achieve this, the federal government is using its 2019 Drought Contingency Plan strategy of sending 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell, while reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume by around 480,000 acre-feet. The water coming from Flaming Gorge Reservoir will travel 455 miles to Lake Powell, as the reservoir sits at the Utah-Wyoming border.
And by delaying keeping 350,000 acre-feet of water held back from earlier this year, plus another 130,000 acre-feet to be held back before Sept. 30, the agency is confident Glen Canyon Dam can continue providing hydropower to residents for the next 12 months as it looks for a more permanent plan to operate the dam at lower water levels, as this seems like the future for much of the region. I’ve previously written about how Lake Powell’s demise could be a sign of what’s to come for the U.S. West—and the rest of the country—due to climate change. And advocates with Save Our Colorado have been vocal in their support of “just collapse” of both Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam in order to preserve the Colorado River.
"Trying to save Glen Canyon Dam is climate denial. We need to adapt and move forward, not spend massive resources trying to save doomed 20th century infrastructure,” Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado told Daily Kos. “The Bureau of Reclamation has known this could happen since 2007, and instead of building new electric generating capacity, they stuck their head in the sand. This is one of the first big climate tests in front of the Biden administration and they are failing miserably. Glen Canyon Dam needs to be abandoned and the focus should be on keeping Lake Mead and Hoover Dam operational for the next decade.”
Rather than coming up with a plan that flies in the face of how climate change has altered Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, the longer-term solution may be taking into consideration how residents reliant on both can find sustainable power solutions, recreation options, and ways to boost tourism that not only benefit the community but leave little impact on the environment. When Lake Powell reached its high water mark some 17 years after starting to fill in 1963, its creators likely did not anticipate the body of water reaching its lowest surface elevation in its history in 2022. The lake stands at 3,522 feet—just 32 feet above the level needed at minimum for Glen Canyon Dam to continue generating hydropower. “This elevation introduces new uncertainties for reservoir operations and water deliveries because the facility has never operated under such conditions for an extended period. These two actions equate to approximately 16 feet of elevation increase,” the Bureau of Reclamation noted.
The Colorado River storage system is at an incredibly vulnerable point right now, with Lake Mead all but drying up and the Hoover Dam reaching startlingly low levels and generating less and less power. I was truly shocked to visit the Hoover Dam last month and find its waters minimal, the rocks around it a ghostly white due to mineral deposits from when water levels were much more robust. Visiting almost felt like a different kind of tourism, playing witness to the death of a relic initially hailed as a high point in the Great Depression that may prove obsolete as the climate crisis worsens. It’s a fate many other dams may see, especially in the Western U.S. But the Bureau of Reclamation vows to keep fighting “to rebuild our reservoirs.” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said that the agency will use “science-based, innovative strategies and [work] cooperatively with all the diverse communities that rely on the Colorado River.”