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Record low Lake Powell and bad 2021 drought forecast sets stage for water cuts

The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.

Blue Mesa is Colorado’s 2nd largest reservoir was formed by Blue Mesa Dam, is a 390-foot-tall earthen fill dam across the Gunnison River near Gunnison, Colorado, completed in 1966 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Colorado River Storage Project. The Colorado River Storage Project was created to manage the Colorado River, provide water storage, flood control and create hydroelectric power. Blue Mesa Reservoir is approximately 30 miles long with 96 miles of shoreline and spreads over 14 square miles in area. The reservoir can hold 940,700 acre feet of water. The Gunnison River is the Colorado River's 5th largest tributary. Ice fishermen standing on the ice of Blue Mesa Reservoir beneath the Dillon Pinnacles give a sense of scale to Blue Mesa reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado on January 22, 2021. Normally the landscape around Blue Mesa is buried under deep snow. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the statewide snowpack is currently at 73 percent of normal and the Gunnison Basin is at 50-70% of normal. Such low amounts of snow may create drought conditions. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Normally the landscape around Blue Mesa is buried under deep snow. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the statewide snowpack is currently at 73% of normal and the Gunnison Basin is at 50-70% of normal. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago. 

A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts. 

The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.

“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week. 

The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.

Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal. 

The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity. 

The Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell in Page, Arizona. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

This has been a long time coming as the impacts of climate change manifest. The Colorado River Basin has been in a sustained drought since 2000, with the inflow into Lake Powell ranking above average in only four of the past 19 years.

“The period 2000-20 is the lowest 21-year period since the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963,” the bureau’s January report reads, noting that the average inflow into Powell in those 21 years is only 80% of the 30-year average measured since 1981. 

If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to  deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity.  Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin. 

Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013. 

He remembers a board meeting in the spring of 2013 where one of his water supply managers stood up and reached for the ceiling. He said the state needed 8 feet of snow to rescue it from serious water shortages that summer. 

“And within a few days it started to snow and sure enough we got 8 feet of snow,” Lochhead said. 

Low snow reveals the banks along the Taylor River near Almont, Colorado on January 23, 2021. Normally the Taylor River, a tributary to the Gunnison River, is frozen and its banks buried beneath snow. A lack of snow in late January may lead to drought on Colorado's Western Slope. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide snowpack is 73 percent of normal and the Gunnison Valley is 50-70 percent of normal. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Low snow reveals the banks along the Taylor River near Almont, Colorado on Jan. 23, 2021. Normally the Taylor River, a tributary to the Gunnison River, is frozen and its banks buried beneath snow. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.” His team is working with water districts across Colorado to begin drought-planning work. Water restrictions are on the table and Denver Water is anticipating financial impacts from reduced water consumption.

“Things are not looking very good,” he said. “There are going to have to be some very serious discussions about what we can do even in the next year or two to try to manage the system to avoid some real alarming results.”

One distinct problem on the horizon: Management of Colorado River Basin water is based on 10-year averages. After this year, the bountiful 2011 falls out of the equation. 

“That is going to pull our 10-year average down pretty significantly,” Lochhead said. 

Northern Water, which supports more than 1 million people and 615,000 acres of irrigated farm land, is watching the demands on Colorado River water, but its focus is on wildfire impacts in the headwaters of its Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which diverts water beneath the Continental Divide for use in northeastern Colorado. Paradoxically, the lack of big snow on the burn scar left by the East Troublesome wildfire may reduce the impacts of sediment-filled runoff clogging the water district’s infrastructure. 

“I’m not saying we are happy we are below average, but if we were way above, that would create new problems of their own right now,” Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla said. “That said, we recognize there are some big questions facing the Colorado River down the road.”

Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole. 

“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.

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