Shrinking Water Levels Threaten Power Grid


Uncle Sam decided to start bogarting Lake Powell water. There’s really no choice, federal officials explained on Tuesday. Sure, these steps may be “extraordinary” but if they don’t keep hundreds of billions of gallons backed up behind the Glen Canyon dam, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million people would lose their lights and air conditioning.

Holding back the water

Perched along the border Utah shares with Arizona, Lake Powell is an important source of water reserves for most of the southwest. The prolonged drought has levels so low that it threatens the regional power plant, build into the dam at Glen Canyon which forms the lake.

The Bureau of Reclamation plans to hold back about 480,000 acre-feet, barely enough to keep homes and businesses powered.

According to Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary of water and science, storing some “in the reservoir would stave off hydropower concerns for at least 12 months.” It wouldn’t solve the problem but it would buy some time to think up a good answer for the long term. The big challenge is figuring out how to keep the generators spinning with a lot less pressure.

The only laws in the universe which can’t be broken are the laws of physics. Right now, the lake “holds less than one-fourth of its full capacity.” That’s bad news for 5 million customers across seven states.

One thing they can say for sure is that this is a new one. “We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River basin, but conditions we see today and the potential risks we see on the horizon demand that we take prompt action,” Trujillo insists.

One important thing is that hoarding the hydrogen monoxide supply won’t “have any immediate impacts on the amount of water allocated for the region’s cities.” She promises it “won’t affect farms that rely on the Colorado River, which already face mandatory cuts in central Arizona.

Inflow less than outflow

Any trickle of drainage left in the Colorado river by the time it gets to Mexico, after all the states get their cut, they can keep. In total there are around 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural sector downstream from the big lake. The big problem is that there’s “less water flowing through the river than is consumed by cities and farms throughout the region.

That means levels are dropping in all the reservoirs. Lake Mead is the other big storage tank, and it dropped so low that Las Vegas PD recovered a mob hit victim, still stuffed in a barrel.

Tuesday’s announcement is only the most recent attempt to keep the generators moving. The Bureau of Reclamation has also “ordered releases from other reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, including 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border.

Blue Mesa reservoir in Colorado and the Navajo reservoir in New Mexico coughed up their share last year.

The lights and coolers will keep running for another year but experts note the “decision injects uncertainty into the boating and recreation industries that rely on consistent reservoir levels to operate infrastructure like docks.

They’ll get over it if they want a lake at all. This dilemma “forces officials to confront that.” Without drastic conservation measures, “demand for water in growing regions will likely come up against supply constraints in a hotter, drier future.” Cities like Phoenix would dry up and blow away.


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