Drought at Lake Powell Forces States to Choose Between Water or Electricity

Drought at Lake Powell Forces States to Choose Between Water or Electricity

Lake Powell is the country’s second-largest reservoir that uses the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydroelectric power for 5.8 million homes across seven Southwestern states. However, Lake Powell’s water levels have dropped 100 feet in the last three years due to the catastrophic multi-year drought in the Western US, and hydropower production has subsequently declined by 16%. Faced with little precipitation and extreme heat, states like New Mexico and Arizona have to make the impossible decision between conserving water or generating electricity for their homes.

Yesterday, the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) made an unprecedented emergency announcement to protect the reservoir by holding back the release of water at the Utah-Arizona border to keep a volume of 480,000 acre-feet of water to safeguard hydropower production.

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

PBS: Western states face a bleak future amid the worst drought in more than 1,000 years, February 15, 2022.

Why This Matters

Without the USBR move, in a worst-case scenario, officials project that the Glen Canyon Dam could stop producing by January. This would spell disaster for local communities surrounding the dam, who get almost half of their electricity from hydropower at a discounted rate from the federal government. As a result, these communities would have to get their electricity from other sources, such as natural gas, only contributing to the climate crisis.

Other disadvantaged communities dependent on the dam’s generation of hydropower, including the Navajo, might not be able to afford the cost of fossil fuels, leaving them highly vulnerable to the water shortage.

CNBC: Severe drought in Southwest threatens water and energy security, April 27, 2022.

12 News: Arizona water chief: Drier future arriving sooner than expected, April 17, 2022.

How California is Adapting to Drought

California is one Southwestern state that relies on the Colorado River for many of its water needs. Lake Powell’s shortage means California will need to cut back on its water usage. One initiative is a cash rebate program introduced by Los Angeles County to residents who switch out their lawns for drought-tolerant plants. The county has also tightened watering restrictions and is proposing a ban on lawn watering altogether.

A recent investment made by California’s Department of Water Resources is for the installation of solar panels over existing irrigation canals. The project intends to reduce water evaporation and generate clean energy simultaneously. If successful, the strategy could be adopted by other Southwestern states.

VICE: 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River, and Now It's Drying Up, August 14, 2021.

Pacific Institute: Briefing | The Untapped Potential of California's Urban Water Supply, April 13, 2022.

NBC: Drought causing Arizona farmers to try new water-saving technology, February 21, 2022.

WW0: Newsmaker of the Week | Jacob Morrison, director of River's End, October 28, 2021.