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Drought imperils hydropower on Colorado River's reservoirs

The Colorado River after it passes through the Glen Canyon Dam. The water will travel through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
The Colorado River after it passes through the Glen Canyon Dam. The water will travel through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

The Department of the Interior announced this week that it’s taking unprecedented steps on the Colorado River to protect the power and water supplies for millions of people in the Western United States.

Facing a drought that has persisted for more than 20 years, the West is drying out at an alarming rate. Two of the river’s key reservoirs — Lake Mead in Nevada, and Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah — haven’t been this low since they were first filled up.

If the water level at Lake Powell drops another 30 feet or so, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to create hydroelectric power.

The government said this week that it would release more water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir upstream of Lake Powell, and hold more water back in Lake Powell itself, to keep the water level high enough for another year of power generation.

It is a necessary short-term solution to the problem, says Bob Martin, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy power manager at Glen Canyon Dam.

“We’re basically financing this next water year with the hope that the hydrology turns around,” he says.

Martin says Lake Powell has never been this close to reaching a level known as “minimum power pool” — when there’s not enough water to generate power.

“It’s to the point now where people can’t ignore this,” he says, referring to the drought on the Colorado River, which 40 million people rely on in the West. “You’ve got to pay attention.”

The disappearing shoreline certainly has the attention of people like Ken Runnels.

“I would say since 2018, it’s lost 70 feet,” says Runnels, who runs the Antelope Point Marina on Lake Powell. “It’s kind of shocking.”

Signs of the drought are unmistakable on the country’s second-largest reservoir. At Runnels’ marina, a ramp that once floated on the water now dangles at least 50 feet over a cliff.

Boat ramps are closed, or they’re so inaccessible that brave kayakers have to drag their boats down steep hillsides to launch. And shipwrecks have been exposed.

As the lake shrinks, “we’ll just have to keep chasing the water,” Runnels says.

Millions of people will feel the effects if power generation stops at Glen Canyon Dam.

The Navajo Nation gets about 40% of its power from the Colorado River.

Like other utilities across the West, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is preparing for a future with less hydropower. That means building more solar-power generation and shifting to more expensive and dirtier forms of electricity in the meantime.

That’s something 43,000 customers on the Navajo Nation can’t afford, says NTUA’s Srinivasa Venigalla.

“It’s going to be everybody in the Southwest that’s going to be impacted,” he says. “Everyone has to bear the burden, in my opinion, if we can’t produce any hydropower from the dams on the Colorado River.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.