LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — California farmers are putting a big target on Glen Canyon Dam, telling the federal government it’s time to take a serious look at suggestions to stop using the dam to produce electricity.
Talk of decommissioning the dam has been on the fringe of criticism of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation management of the Colorado River, but it could gain momentum as public comment is released in the coming days. Reclamation asked for input as it works on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for managing the river as the Colorado River Compact — the “Law of the River” — nears expiration in 2026.
More than 21,000 comments were submitted, and they are expected to be publicly available in the coming days. Conservation groups, government agencies, businesses and private citizens all weighed in. Public comment ended on Aug. 15.
A letter submitted by farmers from California’s Imperial Valley doesn’t mince words.
“Any alternative considered in the EIS should respect Imperial Valley’s senior water rights,” it says, asserting one of the century-old agreements governing who gets a share of the river.
“Past proposals by environmental groups to decommission Glen Canyon Dam or to operate the reservoir without power production as a primary goal can no longer be ignored and must be seriously considered in the EIS,” the letter says.
“The evaporative losses occurring in Lake Powell are significant given the demands on the Colorado River system and must be taken into account,” the letter argues. As much as 10% of the river water is lost to evaporation each year. Keeping the water in two reservoirs isn’t helping, increasing the surface area over two shallower reservoirs instead of a deeper Lake Mead.
The letter also says the 1922 Colorado River Compact requires the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to provide half the water that flows to Mexico. That water hasn’t been coming out of the shares allocated to those states, farmers argue.
Glen Canyon Dam might not be capable of allowing that water to flow through if Lake Powell drops to 3,525 feet (elevation). Reclamation borrowed water to keep Lake Powell high enough to maintain flow through the dam’s turbines during a crunch over the past year when both reservoirs dropped to historic lows.
“At a minimum, the dam should be operated to allow for the passage of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of 10 consecutive years and one-half the supply provided to Mexico as required under the 1922 Compact. The EIS should consider the need to retrofit the dam to adhere to this requirement.”
Why not pull just the plug?
California farmers bring a powerful voice to the table and the Imperial Valley is well known as an important source of vegetables in winter months, producing lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. During summer months, carrots are grown.
The Imperial Valley’s agricultural economy is valued at around $1.8 billion from a half-million acres of farmland.
It’s the biggest consumer of Colorado River water. California gets 4.4 million acre-feet of water annually from the river, and the Imperial Valley uses 80% of that.
See our previous reporting on the Imperial Valley by 8 News Now Investigator Kyle J. Paine:
MAY 2: California farmers at odds with states seeking Colorado River conservation plan
MAY 2: This is what Southern California is doing to save water
MAY 3: What is desalination, how can it end war over Colorado River?
MAY 4: How capturing rainfall can help crisis on Colorado River
MAY 5: Los Angeles County officials working to lower water consumption
By comparison, Nevada gets 275,000 acre-feet this year, and is on pace to use about 224,000 acre-feet, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep — or 325,851 gallons. That’s enough water to supply two to three households for a year.
A conservation plan crafted by Nevada officials late last year indicates support for continued power production at Glen Canyon Dam.
The river supplies water to 40 million people as it winds its way through the Southwest.
If there’s one thing that’s clear in the politics surrounding Colorado River water, it’s a dislike between California and Arizona. Officials from California have long-criticized Arizona’s use of river water, never hesitating to point to “senior rights.” There was even an armed standoff in 1934 when Arizona formed a Navy to oppose California’s work on Parker Dam at Lake Havasu.
Glen Canyon Dam is adjacent to the town of Page, Arizona. About 7,500 people live there, most employed by National Park Service concessionaire Aramark. The economy surrounding Lake Powell is estimated around $332 million.
A 2022 National Park Service report shows 3.1 million people visited Glen Canyon National Recreation Area — ranked 25th among all NPS units. Visitors stay an average of five days — the longest of any federal park. That supports 3,840 jobs, $139 million in income, $234 million in value added, and $410 million in economic output in local gateway economies.
In addition to Page, Lake Powell is important to a list of small towns in the region including Big Water, Kanab, Bluff, Blanding, Hanksville, Escalante, Ticaboo, Boulder and Marble Canyon.
Lake Powell is known for its endless shorelines — 2,000 miles extending into numerous side canyons where people on houseboats go for getaways.
Horseshoe Bend is one of the most photographed places on the Colorado River, just a few miles from Page below the dam. Antelope Canyon is another popular destination in the region.
While draining Lake Powell seems unlikely, there’s a problem with any proposal short of that.
Glen Canyon Dam’s ‘antique plumbing’
A year ago, conservationists pointed to a big flaw in the Glen Canyon Dam’s engineering. It can’t produce power if it drops below 3,525 feet, and it can’t release enough water, either.
Secondary pipes (labeled in the graphic below as “River Outlet Works”) that can release water at lower levels don’t have the flow capacity to meet the requirements of the Colorado River Compact. Farmers appear to be referring to that problem in their letter when they bring up a “retrofit” to the dam.
In February, Reclamation presented several alternatives that might solve the problem. Conservationists dismissed the possibility because of the time required for the federal government to execute any of the plans.
Even a record snowpack doesn’t buy enough time.
“This would be a fantastic study if the year was 2012 or 2013,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council said. But now, there’s no time to complete NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) studies and a formal Environmental Impact Statement. Frankel said that process alone would last five years. “Sometime in 2027, they could start construction,” he said.
Meanwhile, the federal government is spending millions of dollars under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to solve small water problems around the country.
Reclamation has yet to set the course for the costliest problem of all — solving the Colorado River problem.