The request includes $1.4 billion for Bureau of Reclamation water projects to deal with droughts that are expected to worsen in coming years.(Lake Powell in 2021, photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The second largest reservoir on the Colorado River has dipped below a key water level for the first time, despite emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs last summer and fall meant to prevent the troubling milestone.
On Tuesday, Lake Powell fell under 3,525 feet above sea level, a critical threshold that gives water managers a 35-foot buffer to take action before water levels reach below the minimum level needed to generate hydropower for 6 million people in the southwest.
The Bureau of Reclamation stated the dip is temporary and levels are expected to recover with spring runoff in May. However, the dry months that led to Lake Powell’s falling levels will likely continue as a mega-drought grips the southwest. The major reservoir is now just 25% full, due in part to drought and climate change.
“This year the Colorado River Basin has experienced extremely variable conditions with a record high snowpack one month, followed by weeks without snow,” said Reclamation Acting Commissioner David Palumbo in a public statement. “This variable hydrology and a warmer, drier west have drastically impacted our operations and we are faced with the urgent need to manage in the moment.”
Previous forecasts warned about the potential dip in March. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoir, releases a monthly report outlining the potential for the lake to hit even lower levels during the next two years.
The report, known as the 24-Month Study, projected three scenarios for elevation levels at Powell— a most probable outcome, as well as a best- and worst-case scenario. Dropping below 3,525 in March was projected as a worst-case scenario.
Last year, the Bureau attempted to boost Powell by about 3 feet by releasing additional water from the upper basin reservoirs, including 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming.
The strategic release from the upper basin reservoirs was in line with the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was implemented by the Department of the Interior in 2019 and signed by California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah.
Ultimately, those releases did not prevent water levels from dropping below the critical threshold.
The Bureau and the Upper Basin states are working on a Drought Operations Plan that will be released in April and will propose additional actions to help protect Lake Powell elevations in 2022 if necessary – a scenario that’s looking increasingly likely.
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