Lake Powell Water Levels Hit Historic Low. What Happens Now?

Lake Powell's water levels have just reached a historic low, amplifying the need for urgent water policy changes.

On February 14, the Colorado River reservoir dropped to a historic low of 3,522.16 feet above sea level. It then continued to decline to 3,521.77 feet as of February 18.

This is the lowest Lake Powell's water levels have been since the man-made lake was first filled in the 1960s, not long after its construction.

The low water levels are not a surprise. Lake Powell—which sits on the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona—is just one reservoir in a dire situation due to the southwestern megadrought.

Lake Powell has been drying up since the drought began in 2000. Lake Powell is formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides water and electricity for millions living in the locality.

Lake Powell in 2017
Lake Powell in 2022
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Two satellite photos show Lake Powell in 2017, and 2022. In 2022, the lake is significantly smaller, due to the ongoing megadrought.

The fear among officials is that if the lake's water levels keep dropping at the current rate, they could dead pool levels of 3,370 feet. At this point water would no longer flow past the dam, causing hydropower operations to cease.

The lake's levels fluctuate seasonally with rainfall and snowpack flowing down from the Colorado Rockies, but the drought has made these weather patterns less frequent and harder to predict.

The snowpack has been significantly above average in recent months due to a particularly cold winter. However, there is only so much snowpack to go around. Lake Powell is a companion to Lake Mead, another Colorado River reservoir on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Lake Mead's water levels are also rapidly declining and in dire need of replenishment.

If the situation continues, the Hoover Dam—which forms the reservoir—could stop working.

Lake Powell's target elevation is 3,525 feet. It has now dropped below this several times. It first dropped below this level in March 2022, and again in December 2022.

Water levels are only set to keep declining. 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.

So now a new historic low has been reached, what happens next?

The government has previously implemented initiatives to top up Lake Powell, but that has not stopped it from drying up.

Experts agree that urgent water policy reform is needed to protect the Colorado River reservoirs. As the drought rages on, water from Lake Powell is being used more quickly than it can replenish itself.

States from the Colorado River Compact—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming—will have to come up with a plan. In January, all Colorado river states other than California—which is proposing its own agreement—signed an agreement pleading to conserve 1.5 million acre feet of water for the next two years.

But officials from the Bureau of Reclamation—which has been keeping an eye on Lake Powell's water levels—say that at least 2 to 4 million acre feet needs to be conserved in order to keep Glen Canyon Dam functioning properly.

The Bureau is likely to issue a mandate for water conservation soon.

Jennifer Pitt, director of the Audubon's Colorado River Program, previously told Newsweek: "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%, 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."

Experts have put the ongoing megadrought down to climate change. This means in the long term, there also needs to be initiatives in place that will prevent climate change from worsening.

"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," Pitt said.

Much of life in the southwest exists as it does today because of the dams along the Colorado River. If Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam were to no longer function, life would never be the same.

Eric Balken, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Glen Canyon Institute, told local news that it is time for the surrounding states to begin planning for a future where Glen Canyon Dam is not functioning.

"I think it would be foolish for us not to at least study the idea of fully phasing out that reservoir because it just is becoming more and more likely that it's going to drop into a dead pool scenario," Balken said.

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