Lake Powell Water Levels Fall to Record Lows, Threaten Power for Millions

Record low water levels in Lake Powell

In August, the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage along the Colorado River as drought pushed its largest reservoir, Lake Mead, to record lows. Now, that shortage is threatening the power supply of 5.8 million homes and businesses and water levels at the nation's second largest reservoir, Lake Powell, have fallen to record lows. Now, projections say there is a 34% chance that the levels could fall so low by 2023, that the lake's Glen Canyon Dam won't be able to provide electricity at all.

NASA Earth Observatory: Before and after photo of Lake Powell comparing 1999 to 2021, September 14, 2021.

US Drought Monitor (USDM) map displaying drought categories across the Southwest for the week of September 14th, 2021. (Source:

Why This Matters

The Colorado River water shortage is unprecedented, but soon other rivers and water sources may see severe shortages as well. A 2020 study found that by 2071, 204 of the nation's freshwater basins may not be able to meet water demand, which is only increasing as drought and wildfires grip the Western US. The nation's power and water infrastructure are not prepared for climate disasters of this scale, and climate experts predict extreme water cuts for millions of people if swift action isn't taken to halt global temperature rise.

Dry Future

New projections released by the US Bureau of Reclamation this week reported only a 3% chance that Lake Powell will drop below hydroelectricity-generating levels by next year. But future projections jump more than tenfold by 2023. This would be a huge hit to hydroelectric infrastructure as Glen Canyon Dam provides power from 5.8 million homes and businesses, stretching from Nevada to Nebraska.

The report also found that there is a 20% chance that water levels in Lake Mead could fall below 1,000 feet above sea level in 2025, just 100 feet above the level at which water would be too low to flow through the Hoover Dam.

Climate experts say that this problem isn't going away unless comprehensive climate action is taken to preserve the nation's water resources. "It's possible you might have a wet year, but the long-term trend is in completely the wrong direction," said Brad Udall, Senior Water & Climate Research Scientist, Colorado Water Institute. "Every passing year that becomes clearer, and it's getting harder for anyone who thinks otherwise to be taken seriously."