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Glen Canyon Dam in Jeopardy as ‘Megadrought’ Threatens Hydroelectric Power Across America’s Southwest

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: May 31, 2022
A barren landscape resulting from a prolonged drought has dramatically dropped the level of Lake Powell and the surrounding Dangling Rope Marina as pictured here on March 26, 2007 near Page, Arizona. (Image: David McNew via Getty Images)

Arizona’s Lake Powell, which now sits less than 35 feet above the water level required to power Glen Canyon Dam’s generators, has been drying out at an alarming pace. 

The news has sent shock waves and alarms across the U.S. and beyond as activists say climate changes will only continue to worsen, and the agency that manages the dam’s hydropower has yet to announce any replacement plan should Lake Powell continue evaporating. 

The reservoir, along with Lake Mead located on the Nevada state line, feeds water to the 1,320-megawatt dam and power station that provides electricity for approximately 3 million residents in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

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Environmental researchers have identified that the two reservoirs have been drying out for the past 22 years, but noted that this year marked a new historic low — with the area experiencing the worst drought it has seen in 1,200 years. Experts have warned that the dam will stop being able to generate hydroelectric power if the situation continues to worsen, and the issue is not isolated to only Glen Canyon dam.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of March 29, 88.75 percent of the U.S.’ Southwestern states — particularly New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada — have been experiencing what scientists are calling the region’s “driest megadrought.” The term is used to define a drought that lasts two decades or longer. 

A federal forecast released last month also projects that there is a 23 to 27 percent chance that Lake Powell will fall below what authorities call the “minimum power pool” of 3,230 feet during the years 2023 through 2026.

Park Williams, the study’s lead author and geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said that with dry conditions likely to persist, it would take multiple wet years to remediate the effects of climate warming in the region. “It’s extremely unlikely that this drought can be ended in one wet year,” Williams said.

‘A warning bell, and it’s clamoring’

Officials at The Department of Interior have been working alongside the state’s power administration, commonly known as WAPA, to produce a backup plan should the worst case scenario occur and the two reservoirs’ water levels dip to below 32 feet. 

So far, neither organization has been able to specify when a plan will be finished, nor exactly what steps will be taken to remedy the situation.

“We are working on this every day,” said Lisa Meiman, a WAPA spokeswoman. “We want it understood that WAPA is taking this extremely seriously, meeting with the bureau, talking with customers. This is a collaborative effort. We’re not going to resolve this on our own. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be a challenge.”

“3,230 feet is like a warning bell, and it’s clamoring,” Meiman told local Arizona outlet, Tucson News. “It’s meant to be a warning to get everybody moving in the right direction.”

Short-term cure for a long-term problem

In a desperate bid to find a quick solution, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced on May 17 that it would release more water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir upstream of Lake Powell, and hold more water back in Lake Powell itself in order to keep the water level high enough for another year of power generation.

It is a “necessary short-term solution to the problem,” said Bob Martin, deputy power manager for the Bureau of Reclamations at Glen Canyon Dam.

“We’re basically financing this next water year with the hope that the hydrology turns around,” Martin said, adding that he has never seen Lake Powell being this close to reaching a level known as “minimum power pool” — when there’s not enough water to generate power. 

“It’s to the point now where people can’t ignore this,” he told reporters at Wbur news, “You’ve got to pay attention.”

Dams may have affected health of Colorado River

For decades, environmentalists have claimed that the ecological health of the U.S.’ Southwest is directly tied to the fate of the Colorado River, which stretches over 1,450 miles and is the sixth largest river in North America. A century ago, the Colorado River was one of the world’s healthiest rivers — brimming with an “extraordinary variation of water flow, temperature, and sedimentation that created a unique ecosystem home to 16 endemic fish species” — the largest percentage of any river system in North America.

After the U.S. government bolstered efforts to build innovative power sources during the Industrial Revolution however, the region saw the construction of over a dozen dams in the last century. Since then, hundreds of miles of canyon and countless archaeological sites have been flooded, endangering dozens of wildlife species and critically damaging the integrity of the Colorado River.