Water levels at Lake Powell have dropped to their lowest level since the huge reservoir was filled more than 50 years ago, another sign of the ongoing drought’s toll on the Colorado River.
The reservoir fell to 3,555.09 feet above sea level Friday and continued to drop through the weekend, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. As of late Sunday, water levels stood at 3,554.72 feet.
The previous low mark, set in 2005, was 3,555.10 feet. Friday’s low water mark comes barely a month after Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the river, reached a record low. Federal officials are expected next month to declare a water shortage on the Colorado River, triggering cutbacks next year in Arizona and Nevada.
The bureau and many climate experts attribute the decline to the effects of climate change, including drought, excessive heat and reduced snowfall. While the bureau has forecast declining water levels for years, nothing in its climate models suggested the precipitous drop would happen so quickly.
The rapid decline of the country’s second largest reservoir has alarmed water experts and advocates. In 2019, the bureau along with the seven Colorado River basin states signed a drought operations agreement meant to map out a plan for averting a water and power crisis.
“The fact that we’ve reached this new record underscores the difficult situation that we’re in,” said Wayne Pullan, regional director for the Upper Colorado Basin at the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Glen Canyon Dam.
The elevation must remain above 3,490 feet to keep the hydropower turbines turning and generating electricity to millions of people. Below that level, the turbines and the other machinery could be damaged.
Because of the low water levels, the bureau has begun to release water from three upstream reservoirs into Lake Powell ahead of schedule. The emergency measure is intended to help ensure the water level remains high enough for the power operation.
The bureau would like to maintain a target elevation at Lake Powell of 3,525 feet, which is 35 vertical feet above 3,490 feet. Agency officials expect the reservoir to reach that target elevation by the spring of 2022. In the meantime, the bureau is working with states to put a plan together for when that milestone is reached.
“There are three purposes for us maintaining the level of Lake Powell: Maintaining the infrastructure, maintaining the ability to generate power, and for the upper basin states to be able to meet their delivery obligations to the lower basin states, ” said Pullan.
“Having that target elevation 35 feet above 3490 is basically our safety buffer,” he said. “And that gives us both a buffer in terms of water and a buffer in terms of time to be able to take actions to maintain that elevation.”
Lindsey K. Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @Lkbotts and tell him about stories at [email protected]
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.