(CNN) – Reservoirs above the Colorado River Basin may not have enough water to keep Lake Powell above a critical level indefinitely, federal officials have warned in recent weeks, as the mega- ongoing drought in the west is sapping water for the entire west.
The Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, which is releasing a huge amount of water downstream this year to help Lake Powell, may have only enough water left for two more similar emergency releases, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials told CNN, though they have yet to fully model the situation.
Federal authorities took emergency action in May to use water from reservoirs upstream to raise the level of Lake Powell and give surrounding communities more time to plan for the likelihood that the reservoir would soon drop too low for the Glen Canyon Dam generates hydroelectricity.
The dam is a key power source in the region, generating power for as many as 5.8 million homes and businesses in seven states, and is at high risk of being forced offline if lake levels rise. drops below 3,490 feet above sea level.
Lake Powell’s water level was around 3,529 feet Thursday, or 24% full.
Water managers worked hard to keep Powell from falling below its critical threshold. Their first step was to release more water from reservoirs upstream in the Colorado River Basin, such as Flaming Gorge. The second was to retain the water in Lake Powell itself instead of sending it downstream to Lake Mead, which is the largest reservoir in the country.
But using Flaming Gorge water to keep Lake Powell afloat was just a “buffer,” according to Jim Prairie, head of Colorado’s Upper Basin Research and Modeling Group, and couldn’t be a solution. long-term. Prairie noted in August, based on its water level at the time, Flaming Gorge would only be able to handle two more similar emergency releases.
“What is that [process] what we’re doing is just dabbing for a year, and we probably have the opportunity to do it maybe twice more, and then there’s no more capacity,” Prairie said. “So something else will have to fill that 500,000 acre-feet, another mechanism.”
Water deliveries from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell are being made in varying amounts each month to reach a total of 500,000 acre-feet by the end of April 2023, according to the bureau. Due to the release, the level of Flaming Gorge is expected to drop about 9 feet, although this will help raise the elevation of Lake Powell by about 16 feet.
Prairie said the biggest challenge is finding long-term solutions to the basin crisis.
“And this is really the challenge that is launched to all [Colorado River] basin states,” he added. “How can we collaborate and work together to find these ways to meet the additional needs of these reservoirs if we want to maintain them? »
Eric Kuhn, a retired former director of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN that was no surprise at all.
“There’s really only one reservoir upstream — Flaming Gorge — that has any significant capacity,” Kuhn said. “And they used it two years in a row to about 700,000 acre feet.”
Notably, Prairie’s forecast for Flaming Gorge does not take into account future weather conditions in the West. For example, a wetter-than-average winter this year, which would top off all reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin, could negate the need for emergency releases.
But Kuhn said that wouldn’t be good news for Lake Powell.
“Filling those tanks that have been drained comes first, that’s where the water goes first,” Kuhn said. “If you rob Peter to pay Paul, the next time we have decent runoff a lot of the water will go to recovery storage in those reservoirs upstream which will reduce the inflow to Powell so that reduces the recovery rate from Powell in a slightly above average and wetter year.
Justin Mankin, co-lead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force, previously told CNN that water management in the Colorado River Basin across all of its reservoirs is “much like the central bank of an economy, drawing money from local banks to sort of keep the economy afloat.
“Lake Powell is the central bank of the Colorado River Basin,” Mankin said. “Maybe it’s doable for a little while, but just like a household, the longer it’s in debt, the harder it is. And it’s really the same with these tanks.
Without the emergency measures it took this year, including the Flaming Gorge releases, the bureau estimated there was about a 25% chance that the Glen Canyon Dam would have stopped generating hydroelectricity. by January.
“Everyone relies on collective watershed storage,” Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, told CNN. “The main problem is the total storage in the whole related system.”
For the remainder of the year, water releases from the Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa reservoirs are expected to continue through October; meanwhile, Lake Navajo, on the Colorado-New Mexico border, will ramp up its outflows in November and December. As a result of these emergency releases, every tank will experience a major drop: four feet at Flaming Gorge; eight feet to Blue Mesa; and two feet into Navajo Lake.
Schmidt said it’s important to remember that all tanks are connected. The total capacity of all federal reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin is approximately 58 million acre-feet, 50 million of which is Lake Powell and Lake Mead combined.
“If you add all the water from all the tanks, the system is now at 34% capacity,” Schmidt said.
Decisions made for Lake Powell will always affect its downstream neighbor, Lake Mead. Due to the low level of Lake Mead, the federal government announced in August additional water cuts for the southwest, which will begin in January 2023.
The Colorado River Basin provides water and electricity to more than 40 million people living in seven western states and Mexico, including households, farms, ranches and indigenous communities.
The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Company. Discovery. All rights reserved.