The situation on the Colorado River continues to get worse. For months, there has been abundant news about falling lake levels (Lake Powell is below 25% full, and Lake Mead is hovering below 30% full) and while some areas of the west had a terrific monsoon, other areas were left high and dry. Now consider a forecasted La Nina winter (could be the third in a row,) which generally features a warmer and dryer season and reduced snowpack throughout the West, including the Rockies; the confluence of a grim water year is staring at us in the face.
Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River. For anyone who has been on the river, whether on a raft trip or hiking to Phantom Ranch or trout fishing at Lee’s Ferry, this is a frightening vision. But what would someone who simply peers over the edge of the Canyon at the South Rim, enjoying the expanse and color and light of the distant rocks and buttes – does it matter to them that the small, silver ribbon in the distance is actually dry, rather than wet? Does it matter to people that the very thing that helped create, and certainly supports the web of life, culture, and connection of one of the grandest landscapes in the world, could be reduced to a mere trickle if we don’t take action – and soon? Are we ok with that scenario?
Let’s review what all this means in a practical sense. You may know that the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal government agency that oversees/manages many of these big reservoirs and the Colorado River system overall, publishes a set of forecasts periodically to try to “project” what lake levels might be – usually up to two years into the future. These are called “24-month studies” and they take scores of different scenarios into account to forecast where the lake levels might be given varying amounts of runoff, soil moisture, snowpack, different temperature possibilities, and how much water is being used in different places across the entire basin. This all feeds into planning how much water needs to be stored, or how much can be released and when, for Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, among other federal facilities within the system. These predictions impact millions of people across the Southwest, and across the country when we start to consider that the vast majority of vegetables grown for our winter food supply rely on Colorado River water.
On average, about 8 million acre-feet of water (just one acre-foot is a football field of water, one foot deep, or just over 326,000 gallons) flows from Lake Powell to Grand Canyon in a normal year. But what happens if that number is drastically reduced, or water can’t safely flow through the dam at all? What happens then? Already this year, nearly a million-acre feet has both been sent downstream (from storage in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir) and held back in Lake Powell to slow the fall of the lake. Right now, there is only about 7 million acre-feet flowing into the Canyon in 2022. But levels are still declining, and we are getting closer to the point where Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate electricity, and potentially even worse, where water really can’t safely flow through the dam at all. What if those flows ultimately consisted of about 10% of what flows today – and all from seepage and springs dotting the length of the canyon itself?
Now back to the most recent 24-month study, where Reclamation projects through what they call the “minimum, most, and maximum probable” hydrology projections. For the first time in the history of these projections, the minimum probable projection indicates that Lake Powell could decline to a level where no electricity can be generated (below elevation 3,490ft) by as early as December of 2023. But that says nothing about the efficiency of that power, since the lower the lake gets, the weaker the power generation capability is.
Below that, water would need to be released through tubes that have never been tested for sustained use. Limited space exists where water can still flow through the dam, supplying water to Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, but not generating any power. Overall, this space is only 120 feet, then the lake would be at “dead pool” (at elevation 3,370 ft.) which is in essence exactly how it sounds – a pool of water not flowing through the dam at all.)
So how much more water needs to be held back in order to keep Lake Powell on life support? John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt contemplate that very question as they set forth the rationale for doing keeping Lake Powell functional in an article they authored last week. We know that the Federal government has emphatically said that they will protect “critical infrastructure” which means Glen Canyon Dam and both the hydropower and water supply systems that depend upon it. We also know that there are many rules that dictate how this whole system is managed. The Colorado River community is comprised of 7 states, as well as the Republic of Mexico and the Department of Interior, along with stakeholders that include municipalities, irrigators, hydropower customers, recreationalists, and environmentalists. Each hold varying interests in different parts of the Basin, but all must find a way to participate as a whole within the Basin that sustains us all. Critical to considering the Basin going forward also requires recognition of the 30 Federally recognized Tribal nations which have long been left out of the decision-making process around the river. Their rights and role as it relates to the river can no longer be overlooked. Their opportunities to participate are gaining and they should be even more deeply included in decisions going forward. In short, nobody can go it alone, and everyone needs water security and predictability to plan for the future.
Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt argue that now might be the time for Reclamation to impose a restricted flow through the dam of only 5.5MAF – ~ 30% less than “normal” flows and still another 13% less water than is flowing into Grand Canyon today. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed “Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.” This proposal would attempt to keep at least some water flowing through the hydropower turbines (and further lower the levels at Lake Mead) but would keep electricity flowing in both. But what impact would this have on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, including the four species of native fish, the coldwater fishery above Lee’s Ferry, and the amazing diversity of plant, animal, and bird life throughout the Canyon? What would happen to the vibrant and sought-after rafting industry, which between both private and commercial trips, ferry’s more than 26,000 people per year through one of the most amazing, humbling, and majestic landscapes on earth? And maybe most importantly, where does this leave the cultural and spiritual considerations that water flowing through the Canyon has for the various Tribal communities that consider the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sacred places – essential to their way of life?
Can everyone come together with a solution to at least hold the river and the two reservoirs it feeds to a level that would at least triage the situation? If not, what then? While hypothetical, we need to recognize that a nearly dry or severely depleted Grand Canyon in a few short years is more plausible than ever. For anyone who has ever done a river trip leaving at Lee’s Ferry, you know that the Paria River comes in just a mile or so below the put-in, but that is a highly unpredictable river – often either pretty small or nearly dry much of the year, or a raging torrent during the monsoon season. The next “reliable” water coming into the Canyon is at the Little Colorado River, 75 miles from the dam – and 75 miles is a long way when there is so much riding on the health and sustainability of this ecosystem. Some water from seepage around the dam does occur, but with lowering lake levels, does that seepage get reduced as well? So many unknowns are staring us all in the face.
The upshot is that this is a scary time in the Colorado River system, with many options to consider – rules and laws, and treaties to follow (or change) and lots of people depending on getting it right. And increasingly important in all this, is that getting it right means getting it right together – the possibility of litigation or other legal action would define the worst-case scenario, as any opportunity for compromise and collaboration and finding solutions together instantly stops the minute the first lawsuit is filed.
The 22-year drought and its associated aridification of soils and plants, the exposure of more than 40 million people to water shortage, the whole country being impacted by the potential of reduced food production, and in the middle of all this, one of the seven wonders of the world and the ecosystem, and people, who are deeply connected to this place. Where do we go from here?