LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The “antique plumbing” in Glen Canyon Dam poses a huge problem in guaranteeing delivery of Colorado River water to states downstream, according to a nonprofit group.
The revelation comes as seven states face an Aug. 15 deadline to produce plans to save 2- to 4-million-acre-feet of water, a deadline put in place by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The Utah Rivers Council and its partners are calling on Congress to act to solve the problems with a looming disaster — a system of pipes that they say is incapable of providing the water to California, Nevada and Arizona under terms of the 1922 Colorado River Pact. If Lake Powell were to drop from its current level (3,536.5 feet as of Aug. 2) to 3,490 feet, Glen Canyon Dam would no longer be able to generate hydroelectric power.
And the water flow out of the dam would be less than required by law.
“If you live in the lower basin, what we’re trying to tell you is that in certain scenarios, you’re not going to get the water that you’re entitled to,” said Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network. “And what could that mean for the upper basin? That could mean litigation and a whole other host of problems.”
The full report appears below:
What are those scenarios? They are simply predictions that water flows recorded over the past 22 years of drought could — and likely will — occur again.
A presentation by the Utah Rivers Council in conjunction with the Glen Canyon Institute and the Great Basin Water Network is recommending two possible solutions to the problem: Either widen or drill additional tubes to increase the amount of water that can be released, or construct new bypass tunnels, allowing water release at river level.
Tunnels that were in place when the dam was built were plugged with reinforced concrete.
Either solution would be a massive engineering project that would cost a lot of money, but Roerink and Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel say the time is now. With the “billions and billions of dollars” currently being spent on water initiatives, paying for a solution now would amount to “couch cushion money,” Roerink said.
Neither of the solutions would solve the problem of continuing to produce electricity at Glen Canyon Dam. The dam produces about 37% of the power used in the region, according to the report, but expanded solar and wind energy operations will reduce that share over time. The contribution to the “western grid” is described as minimal.
Earlier this year, that hydropower was framed as a priority for the Bureau of Reclamation as it requested — and received approval — to keep more Colorado River Water in Lake Powell. That decision lowered Lake Mead’s level by an estimated 7-8 feet, according to estimates at the time.
Now, the nonprofit is questioning whether that decision was really driven by the Colorado River Pact. Frankel said it’s “time to come clean” about the plumbing problems inside the dam.
A ‘SEISMIC ASK’
The request for a plan to reduce water use by as much as 4 million acre-feet is a “seismic ask,” according to Eric Balken, Executive Director of the Glen Canyon Institute. “It is a huge amount of water to be reduced in such a short amount of time.”
As the situation was analyzed, the organizations started to look at whether the problem was deeper than just trying to figure out where to cut back on water use.
Balken said the question became, “Are the plumbing limitations at Glen Canyon Dam going to … limit our options going forward?”
The Utah Rivers Council looked at the water flows from the “penstocks” — water pipes that spin the turbines that produce electricity — and the flow through pipes known as “River Outlet Works” and determined that flow from the entire system is required to meet the commitments of the 1922 pact that assigned rights to river water among the lower basin states. If Lake Powell drops low enough, the River Outlet Works pipes don’t have the capacity to carry enough water downstream. Thus, the recommendation to widen existing pipes or open up a new tunnel.
Is it really possible that the lake could drop that low that fast?
Two models based on recent history show that it could come as soon as quickly as late next year under the most severe conditions — the same as seen from the years 2000-2004. Water flow out of Glen Canyon Dam would be below levels required by the Colorado River Compact in late 2023. By mid-2025, Lake Powell could be low enough that water releases are no longer possible at all by as early as 2025. The term for a reservoir with no functioning water release: dead pool.
More moderate projections following patterns seen from 2017 to 2021 show that hydropower would be interrupted in late 2024, and then resume for two years before dropping below required lake levels again.
In September of 2021, Bureau of Reclamation models showed there would be a 25-35% chance that power production would stop at Glen Canyon Dam. That was before more water was held back.
Can the states resolve this by meeting the Bureau of Reclamation’s deadline for new plans to conserve water?
“If they gave seven states four years to figure out how to cut 2- to 4-million-acre feet that would be more typical of this agency. But they didn’t do that. They said the states have just 60 days,” said Nick Halberg, research and policy analyst for Utah Rivers Council.
Lake levels are expressed in relation to sea level — not depth.