Stretching 186 miles along the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell is one of the two major reservoirs of the Colorado River. Last week, the lake reached a disturbing new milestone: The water level fell to its lowest threshold ever since the Colorado River was dammed in 1963.
The sharp drop is the result of a decades-long drought in the western U.S. that has ravaged the Colorado River for years, forcing unprecedented water cuts in states like Arizona. However, this latest milestone at Lake Powell is significant for another reason. The reservoir also maintains the Glen Canyon Dam, a hydroelectric power plant that provides energy to millions of people. This power source, vital to rural and tribal communities across the region, is now at risk.
The federal government expects Lake Powell’s water levels to rise again this spring as snow melts in the western mountains, but there is still a good chance the reservoir will reach a so-called “dead pool” stage sometime in the next few years, at which point it will be fully Stop producing hydroelectric power. The drought has slowed or shut down power plants in California and Nevada, creating yet another challenge for officials trying to adapt to seemingly endless water shortages.
If reservoirs like Lake Powell continue to decline, millions of people in the West will have to switch to dirtier, more expensive energy sources at a time when transitioning to renewable energy is critical to reducing carbon emissions.
Colorado provides water to more than 40 million people. While the river has experienced several wet and dry periods over the past century, it has never faced the challenge of a “major drought” like the current one, which scientists say is unprecedented in the past millennium . With precipitation remaining low year after year, the inflow of the river’s tributaries has slowed to a trickle and its reservoirs have begun to dry up.
When Lake Powell is full, its surface elevation is about 3,700 feet, but the reservoir hasn’t reached that threshold in some time. Water levels have dropped during the rainless winters of the past few years, reaching a new low of 3,525 feet last week. The lake is now only a quarter full, and the water level is only 35 feet above the deadpool threshold for power generation. Officials say there is a high risk of stagnant pools over the next few winters.
When federal officials built a dam at the southern end of Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell, they assumed there would always be enough water flowing through the Colorado River system to turn turbines, creating a supposedly endless supply of cheap renewable energy. Customers buying this clean energy are rural towns, electric cooperatives and tribes, many of whom don’t have a lot of backup power.
In recent years, turbines have become less efficient as Lake Powell has begun to dry up. The Federal Service of Reclamation has cut power to the dam.
“We’ve seen a reduction in power generation from Glen Canyon Dam,” said Lisa Meiman, a spokeswoman for the Western Regional Power Authority, a government agency that sells hydroelectric power in the region. . “[Generation] Our power generation efficiency has been decreasing as the lake elevation has fallen, so we are now about a third less efficient than the average elevation. ”
When that happens, Meiman said, “we have to go out and buy alternative electricity in the spot market, which is usually more expensive.” It also comes from dirtier sources like coal and natural gas, she said. For most customers who buy power from a dam, losing it is not a big deal. For them, hydroelectricity accounts for only a small fraction of their overall electricity needs, and any price increase would be spread across thousands of users, reducing costs.
For some customers, however, the closure of the dam will be more painful. As dams become less efficient, utility bills have already started to rise, and a complete closure would result in a substantial increase in costs for small and remote entities that depend on dams.
Hardest hit will be the more than 50 tribal nations that rely on hydroelectric power to meet not only residential energy needs but also power for revenue-generating commercial businesses such as casinos. Due to generations of underinvestment by the federal government, many tribes that buy electricity from Lake Powell don’t have the generation capacity to replace it, and building new energy isn’t cheap. Tribal nations will experience the “most disturbing” consequences of the power outage, according to a consulting firm’s report on the impact of the Glen Canyon Dam closure.
The dam’s largest tribal customer is the Navajo Tribal Utilities Administration (NTUA), which provides electricity to approximately 30,000 residential customers on the Navajo Reservation.
“This is a very sensitive issue for all of us right now,” Walter Haas, general manager of Tribal Utilities, told The Associated Press last week after the Bureau of Reclamation issued a water level announcement.
NTUA is spending millions to build renewable energy capacity to help soften the blow of the dam closure. However, other tribes that cannot afford to build such new energy sources will have to pay more to replace electricity, potentially straining revenue. The consultant’s report noted that the Hopi tribe, which does not have a casino to shore up its finances, is particularly vulnerable to these cost increases.
Small cities that depend on the dam are also feeling the pain.
“Hydropower is a very low-cost renewable energy source, [so] Our energy costs are going to go up significantly,” said Bryan Hill, general manager of Page Utility Enterprises, which serves the town of Page, Arizona, on the edge of Lake Powell. Hill said he’s already feeling it as deliveries slow. pain.
“They’ve slowed down a generation in the form of tourniquets and tried to reduce bleeding,” he said, “but we’re already losing money. Unless things change, rates will adjust significantly.” The exact size of that adjustment It’s unclear, but Pecs residents who have come to rely on cheap electricity will see their annual bills increase significantly. Rate hikes will be compounded by the fact that spot market energy also becomes more expensive as the nation’s power system transitions from coal and natural gas to renewables.
Glen Canyon Dam isn’t the only hydroelectric plant struggling with drought: The larger Hoover Dam near Lake Mead has seen its output drop by about a quarter, and California officials closed one at Lake Oroville last year. Hydropower plants, because the water level in the lake is below the power generation threshold. Together, the two dams serve approximately 2 million customers. These power losses have further pushed up prices and put pressure on the grid, while energy has become more expensive as older coal plants go out of business.
To make matters worse, however, Lake Powell’s power shortages are intertwined with larger water shortages in Colorado. If Lake Powell’s water levels continue to drop, federal officials will have to balance the needs of water users with those of electricity users. If they left enough water in Lake Powell to keep the turbines running, they would draw water from the farmers and homeowners who depend on it farther downstream. If they push as much water as possible to end users, they will increase the electricity bills for the small entities that depend on the dam.
The agency has yet to decide its priorities if the all-time lows persist, but time is running out. The latest modelling suggests there is a one in four chance that the dam will fail to generate electricity by 2024.
“The Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell have many uses, many divergent Purpose,” Maiman said. “There will be no easy fix or simple solution for the large number of stakeholders who will be affected by the lake’s decline. ”