Without planning, Lake Powell could dry up in another drought

Lake Powell bathtub ring. By Peter Fitzgerald, CC BY-SA 2.5
Lake Powell bathtub ring. By Peter Fitzgerald, CC BY-SA 2.5

Lake Powell provides water and electricity for multiple states. It was full when the drought of 2000-2005 hit. Today it is half full. A new study says another multi-year drought could dry it up to the point it could not generate power or provide needed water to states like Arizona, if nothing is done. Happily, the seven states who share Colorado River water are planning for the worst, and are confident they can survive most any drought.

Australia had a monster drought a while back and learned to use less water, and created contingency plans. The Southwest and California are doing the same, planning ahead. Lake Powell stores water from the Upper Basin states, releasing it as needed for the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona, and California.) Every drop of water is allocated, often under insanely convoluted and archaic agreements.

The Upper Basin is legally obligated to provide specific amounts of water to the Lower Basin. Lower Basin states are now negotiating agreements whereby they would get less water. Upper Basin states are working on cutting water use too.

The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are devising a “three-legged stool plan” to protect Lake Powell.

One leg would involve reducing water demand by farmers and cities in the Upper Basin. The second would step up cloud-seeding programs to try to boost snowfall in the region. The third would transfer some water stored in the smaller Upper Basin reservoirs to Lake Powell.

Officials managing the effort say computer models show that taking these steps would reduce the risk of catastrophically low levels to near zero.

John Fleck

3,525 [above sea level] is the critical point below which we start to lose the ability to generate power and, more importantly, risk busting the Upper Basin’s compact delivery obligations to the Lower Basin

The point of the study is to help develop contingency plans ahead of time, so we have the tools in place to manage Powell’s decline before it turns into a mud puddle.

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