Feds may reduce downstream releases from Lake Powell as drought persists

The Glen Canyon Dam holds back the waters of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, on Monday, July 18. The reservoir is currently 24% of capacity, about 15 feet above the line it needs to be at to provide electricity, experts say

The Glen Canyon Dam holds back the waters of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, on Monday, July 18. The reservoir is currently 24% of capacity, about 15 feet above the line it needs to be at to provide electricity, experts say (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Department of Interior officials announced Friday that they are approving "expedited steps" for new measures to handle record low water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead as both reservoirs continue to struggle amid ongoing drought conditions.

Department officials said the Bureau of Reclamation will develop a plan that will include suggested alternatives to a Colorado River Interim Guidelines decision made in 2007, a document that offers "operating criteria" for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The criteria include "timing and volumes" of any possible water delivery reductions, meaning that the update may include water reduction details in the Lower Colorado River Basin users, which are Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.

The department notes that the Bureau of Reclamation may need to "modify current operations and reduce Glen Canyon Dam downstream releases" to ensure that the dam continues to meet conditions to produce hydrologic power. But since this may impact riparian areas between Lake Powell and Lake Mead — and Lake Mead's water levels — the bureau may also have to reduce downstream releases from the Hoover Dam.

"We are taking immediate steps now to revise the operating guidelines to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations," said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau's commissioner, in a statement. "(Friday's) action brings new ideas and necessary measures to the table as we consider alternatives to revise operations to better protect (the) Colorado River System in the near term while we also continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans that reflect the climate-driven realities facing the Colorado River Basin."

Friday's announcement is the latest action focused on both reservoirs, which continue to struggle amid ongoing drought conditions. Lake Powell, for instance, remains at 24% of full capacity, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. Lake Mead is also close to a quarter of full capacity.

The Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation called on all states along the Colorado River Basin, including Utah, to voluntarily reduce water use from the river after the agencies published a study in August that highlighted the struggles of both reservoirs. Federal officials also announced cuts to water allotments in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico at the time.

The department also unveiled a plan earlier this month that pays water users in Arizona, California and Nevada to cut back on the water they take from the river. However, those steps alone likely won't be enough to reverse the situation, which is why the department is looking at reducing downstream releases from both reservoirs.

"The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it," said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, in a statement Friday. "Revising the current interim operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams represents one of many critical departmental efforts underway to better protect the system in light of rapidly changing conditions in the basin."

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The WestUtah droughtUtahOutdoorsSouthern UtahEnvironment
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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