Lake Powell Before and After the Drought

Lake Powell's water levels are not what they once were.

The reservoir—which sits on the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona, formed by the Glen Canyon Dam—is one of many impacted by the ongoing megadrought gripping the Southwest.

The Glen Canyon Dam was constructed in the 1960s. It is fed by the Colorado River, and provides water for millions of people living in the locality. The Dam also produces hydropower for the surrounding communities.

In the 1980s, the lake reached 3,700 feet elevation, which is its full capacity, data from the Bureau of Reclamation reported.

Although the lake's water levels fluctuate seasonally due to weather patterns, it was thriving.

However, when the drought began in 2000, the effects began to take hold.

In 1999, and early 2000, Lake Powell's water level stood at 3,700 feet, holding more than 20 million acre-feet of water.

When the drought began, water levels slowly began declining. In 2005, the water levels started to plummet. The reservoir's water level declined to roughly 8 million acre-feet.

Satellite photographs captured by NASA show Lake Powell in 1999, compared to 2005.

Lake Powell in 1999
Lake Powell in 2005
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A side-by-side comparison shows Lake Powell in 1999, compared to 2005, a period when water levels plummeted.

The water levels recovered slightly after that, and continued to fluctuate over the years. But in recent years, they have gotten noticeably worse.

In photographs captured by NASA, Lake Powell appears to be a fraction of its size in 2022, when compared to 2017.

Lake Powell from space
Lake Powell from space
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A side-by-side comparison shows Lake Powell's water decline in recent years, from August 2017 to August 2022

In March 2022, the lake fell below a critical level of 3,525 feet above sea level—the lake's target elevation.

As of February 5, 2023, the lake was at an elevation of 3,522.93 feet.

The lake is set to reach its lowest point this year in April, dropping to 3,519.01 feet, according to a study released by the Bureau of Reclamation.

By the end of 2023, the Bureau projects that the level will be 3543.40 feet. Just five years ago, it was 3,622 feet.

But these projections are just an estimate.

Jennifer Pitt, director of the Audubon's Colorado River Program, told Newsweek: "It is too early in the year to know what Lake Powell will look like. It is influenced by the water flowing into it and the water flowing out of it."

Parts of the Southwest have seen heavy rainfall and winter storms in recent months. This has caused water levels at certain reservoirs, like Lake Powell, to rise. But only time will tell how much it will replenish the lake.

"Right now, snowpack in the mountains is well above average, but there are a few more months to go before we know how much snowmelt will flow into the river. That depends on how much more it snows, whether cool temperatures preserve the snow or warm temperatures evaporate it, and how much snowmelt gets absorbed into soils before reaching the river," Pitt said.

"Even an above-average snowpack can turn into below-average flows when it's warm. In August, the federal Bureau of Reclamation will determine how much to release from Powell after they know how much water is in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Reclamation's models forecast Lake Powell holding steady, but the coming year depends on how much snowmelt hits the river this spring."

The above-average rain and snowpack recently seen in the region will not help the problems, as the ongoing megadrought has lasted for too long.

If the lake's water level were to reach 3,370 feet, it would be at dead pool level. This is when the water level drops so low that it can no longer turn the dam's turbines. This would stop it from producing power.

Experts predict this will happen if water policies in the area do not change.

"The megadrought in the West right now is the driest it has been for at least 1200 years. Below-average snowpack and warmer-than-average temperatures over the last 23 years mean there has been less water flowing into the Colorado River," Pitt said. "But Colorado River water users—farmers and ranchers and 40 million people in the region—have not reduced water usage fast enough. That is why the giant reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—have shrunk so dramatically."

It is not just water resources and power that are at risk. The megadrought, paired with an exceed in water demand, has caused "widespread environmental problems."

Pitt said that fish populations have diminished as the rivers are running too warm, while the risk of wildfires remains great.

"And the Colorado River has not flowed all the way to the sea for most years in the past half-century, destroying the wetlands ecosystem of the Colorado River Delta – habitat for legions of birds and other wildlife—that once extended over nearly two million acres," Pitt said.

"In the short term, Colorado River water users need to figure out how to use less water. There is broad agreement that water uses need to be reduced by about 30 percent, but there's not yet agreement about who should use less. Seven states in the U.S. and two in Mexico rely on water from the Colorado.

"Laws, treaties, and court decisions, some dating back more than a century, govern water allocations. But these laws have never been used to define such big water shortages, so the federal Bureau of Reclamation has started a process to sort it out by late summer 2023. In the longer term, as climate change continues to warm the region, the problem will get worse, so reducing carbon emissions has to be part of the solution as well."

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