It’s time to let Lake Powell go

In today’s ‘new normal,’ there is simply not enough water to maintain both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

 

A collaborative new plan to conserve water isn't really about conservation; it's about hydropower.

The plan is called the "Colorado River Conservation Partnership," and it was launched by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, the Central Arizona Project and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Funded by BuRec and the water districts, the plan asks cities and farmers to use less water by fallowing fields, transitioning to more efficient crops, and encouraging frugal consumption.

This plan, however, doesn't attempt to protect rivers. Instead, as Rose Davis of the BuRec's Lower Colorado Office acknowledges, "Its sole purpose is to boost reservoir levels." For the Upper Colorado River Basin States of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, that means moving more water to Lake Powell.

Nearly everyone agrees that conservation is needed basin-wide, but storing water in Lake Powell, the most wasteful reservoir in the system, isn't about saving water. Upper Basin officials fear that if Lake Powell shrinks too much, the reduced hydropower generation will drastically hike electric rates. They also fear that without Powell, they won't be able to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the Lower Basin, as required under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. But several options are available for addressing these concerns, should the reservoir drop below the generator intakes.

One option involves filling Lake Mead first. This would allow Upper Basin water to flow past Glen Canyon Dam for storage in Lake Mead. A legal analysis published in The Water Report, issue 112, concluded that the plan doesn't violate the Compact, because the counting point for Upper Basin water deliveries could be moved downstream, from Lees Ferry to Hoover Dam. Another option is to release water through Glen Canyon Dam's river outlet works at 3,374-foot elevation. There's also the option of drilling bypass tunnels -- as former Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy once suggested.

Upper Basin officials say that losing generation at Glen Canyon would cause a "spike" in electric power prices, raising rates by as much as 500 percent. This is highly unlikely. Glen Canyon Dam's power may be marketed to 174 Southwestern utilities and providers, yet it contributes less than 1 percent of the total capacity of the Western power grid. There are also alternative power sources available.

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona

If Glen Canyon Dam went offline, gas-fired power plants could instantly meet the demand at a similar cost. In fact, given Lake Powell's recent decline, the dam has already been producing only 60 percent of its generating capacity. Yet no electricity rate "spikes" have occurred.

Another concern is that losing Glen Canyon Dam's hydropower revenues would cut funding for managing endangered fish species on the Colorado. But Dave Wegner, former lead scientist for BuRec's Glen Canyon Dam environmental studies, says wryly, "Glen Canyon Dam is one of the primary reasons these fish are endangered in the first place, and why the beaches in the Grand Canyon are eroding and damaging archaeological and tribal resources." A lower Lake Powell would actually benefit native fish and ecosystems.

And think of the water Lake Powell loses naturally. A 2011 article in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association found that every year, 260,000 to 390,000 acre-feet of water seeps into the ground from Lake Powell, and that filling Lake Mead first could save up to 300,000 acre-feet of water — an amount equivalent to Nevada's entire yearly allotment.

Abrahm Lustgarten, author of ProPublica's Killing the Colorado series, observes that "one single reservoir would introduce greater efficiency and reliability in the system. If you got rid of Lake Powell, the Colorado River would essentially have 6 percent more water overnight."

Allowing Lake Powell to flow into Lake Mead would also normalize flows of water and sediment through Grand Canyon and much of Glen Canyon. This would mean Glen Canyon would transition from a reservoir destination to a world-class rafting and hiking destination. With low reservoir levels over the past decade, hundreds of miles of river and side canyons have already begun to be restored to their natural beauty. Anyone who's hiked down to the Escalante River or floated Cataract Canyon recently knows this to be true.


The concept of filling Mead makes more sense with each passing year as the Colorado River declines. Lake Powell might once have served a purpose. But in today's "new normal," there is simply not enough water to maintain both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It's time to fill Mead first.

Eric Balken is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the executive director of Glen Canyon Institute and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...