SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A massive reservoir known as a boating mecca fell below a critical level on Tuesday, raising new concerns about a power source that millions of people in the western United States relied on. United depend for electricity.
Lake Powell’s drop to less than 3,525 feet (1,075 meters) puts it at its lowest level since the lake filled after the federal government dammed the Colorado River at Glen Canyon more than a year ago. half a century – a record marking another awareness of the impacts of climate change and mega-drought.
This comes as warmer temperatures and less precipitation let a smaller amount flow through the over-exploited Colorado River. While water scarcity isn’t new to the region, hydroelectric problems at Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam reflect that a future western state thought to be years away is approaching — and fast.
“We were clearly not sufficiently prepared for the need to act so quickly,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program.
Federal officials are confident that water levels will rise over the next few months once the snow melts in the Rockies. But they warn that more may need to be done to ensure that the Glen Canyon Dam can continue to generate hydroelectricity for years to come.
“The spring runoff will solve the short-term deficit,” said Wayne Pullan, regional director for the US Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and electricity in more than a dozen states. “However, our work is not finished.”
Although Lake Powell and its downstream counterpart, Lake Mead, are falling faster than expected, the region’s main focus has been on how to deal with water shortages in Arizona, Nevada and California, not on electricity supply.
For Glen Canyon Dam, the new level is 35 feet (11 meters) above what is considered a “minimum power pool” – the level at which its turbines would stop producing hydroelectric power.
If Lake Powell drops even further, it could soon reach “deadpool” – the point at which water probably couldn’t flow through the dam and onto Lake Mead. Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico already apply a combination of mandatory and voluntary reductions tied to Lake Mead levels.
About 5 million customers in seven states – Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – buy electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam.
The government provides it at a cheaper rate than energy sold on the wholesale market, which can be wind, solar, coal or natural gas.
For cities, rural electric cooperatives, and tribes that rely on its hydroelectricity, less water flowing through Glen Canyon Dam can therefore increase total energy costs. Customers pay for it.
The situation worries the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, one of 50 tribal utilities that depend on the dam for hydroelectricity. It plans to spend $4.5 million on an alternative energy supply this year.
“It’s a very sensitive issue for all of us right now,” said Walter Haase, chief executive of the Tribal Public Service.
Last summer, Bureau of Reclamation officials took an unprecedented step and diverted water from reservoirs in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado in what they called “releases.” emergency” to replenish Lake Powell. In January, the agency also held back water that was to be released from the dam to prevent it from plunging even lower.
Concerns go beyond hydroelectricity. Last summer, tourism and boating were hampered by falling lake levels. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area takes advantage of low Lake Powell levels to extend boat ramps. Most are now closed or come with warnings to launch at your own risk.
In Page, Ariz., which benefits from Lake Powell recreation, officials launched a campaign this month to stress that lower levels aren’t necessarily bad for visitors, noting that receding shorelines have revealed sunken boats , canyons and other geographical wonders.
“There’s an awful lot of history there,” Councilman Richard Leightner said. “You can see some of the old dwellings, and parts of the Old Spanish Trail are now accessible. It is an opportunity, but it depends on the state of mind of the person.
The record low also comes after a difficult year for hydroelectricity. Last year, as U.S. officials scrambled to expand renewable energy, drought in the West led to a drop in hydroelectricity generation, making it harder for officials to meet demand . Hydropower accounts for more than a third of the country’s large-scale renewable energy.
Nick Williams, Colorado’s upper basin electricity manager, said many variables, including rainfall and heat, will determine how well Lake Powell bounces back in the coming months.
Either way, hydrological modeling suggests there’s about a 1 in 4 chance it won’t be able to generate electricity by 2024.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.