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Op-Ed: Lake Powell crisis is so bad that ‘We’re knocking on the door of judgment day’

The creators of Lake Powell never imagined that, in 2022, the lake would face a crisis of an unimaginal magnitude.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Lake Powell. Credit - Glen Canyon Nat’l Rec Area /
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Lake Powell. Credit - Glen Canyon Nat’l Rec Area /

For the first time in history, Lake Powell has dipped below 3,525 feet. A drop of 32 more feet will mean the cessation of hydroelectric power production at the Glen Canyon Dam.

Two weeks ago, the seven Colorado River Basin States responded to a request from the Interior Department to withhold almost a half-million acre-feet of water to address “critically-low elevations over the next 24 months” at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The states agreed to reduce water releases from Glen Canyon Dam from 7.48 million acre-feet to 7 million acre-feet in fiscal 2022. This move would reduce the risk of damage to the hydropower turbines at Lake Powell and protect water deliveries to Page, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation.

Forty percent of Page’s power comes from the Glen Canyon Dam. Without it, they’ll be forced to make up that electricity with fossil fuels like natural gas, according to CTV News Canada.

Bryan Hill runs the public power utility in Page, Arizona, where the federal dam is located and likens the situation to judgment day.

Hill says: “We’re knocking on the door of judgment day – judgment day being when we don’t have any water to give anybody.”

Arash Moalemi, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s deputy general manager, told CNN a loss of power at the Glen Canyon Dam would be devastating for the Navajo community.

“We have 40 percent unemployment, and our per capita income is a little over 10 thousand dollars,” Moalemi said. “Higher energy prices could mean some people aren’t able to heat or cool their homes.”

Image of Colorado River near Hoover Dam taken in June 2019. Note the “bathtub ring” around the river’s edge

The bottom line is as serious as can be: The Interior Department projects the dam could stop producing power by January. And it has turned into a scramble to find some temporary solutions that could buy officials some more time to fix things.

The climate crisis is forcing both federal and state governments to make tough choices and take drastic measures just to keep both power and water flowing, with the Interior Department expected to make a final decision on how to handle the dire situation at the dam in the next couple of weeks.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Lake Powell has historically functioned as a vast “bank account” of water that can be drawn on during dry years, making the lake’s levels especially critical as the Southwest suffers through the worst megadrought to hit western states in centuries.

Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, tells Tucson Local Media: “Your savings account is not indefinite, or infinite, right? And so eventually you get to the point, like we are with Lake Mead, that our savings account is being depleted.”

The point is this – The Bureau of Reclamation has already boosted releases from upstream reservoirs once this year to prop up Lake Powell, and reduced releases from it by 350,000 acre-feet.

And continually moving vast amounts of water from upstream dams to bolster levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell is asking for trouble, especially because climate change is not going to magically disappear.

Not only that, but we run the risk of doing damage to the upstream basin and that region’s water supplies.

And this is not a new problem for the United States, not by a long shot. Our officials at the federal and state levels have sat around for years, now, talking about climate change and the effects it has had on our western states, and yet when we are facing the possibility of a loss of hydropower and water to over 10 million people – Where is the damned public outcry?

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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