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Water drawn from Blue Mesa Reservoir to fill Lake Powell put an early end to seasonal boating operations on the lake, including Elk Creek Marina, photographed on Oct. 29, 2021. Now that the water level on Lake Powell has dropped into a crucial buffer level, the owner of the marina in Gunnison is worried there will be additional draws and no boating season at all in 2022. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A relatively dry February pushed Lake Powell below a key water level for the first time since the lake was considered “full” in 1980, and has led to deeper projected drops over the next two years.

On Tuesday, the lake fell below 3,525 feet above sea level, a key target elevation that water managers have been trying to keep Powell above because it provides a buffer from the minimum level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate power. Previous forecasts showed this was possible and the Bureau of Reclamation announced on March 4 that a temporary drop below 3,525 feet was on its way.  

It comes as the latest monthly report from the Bureau outlines the potential for Powell to hit even lower levels during the next two years. That has water watchers worried, and businesses that depend on water closer to home could be impacted. “We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do; we might not even be able to open this season,” said Eric Loken, head of operations at Blue Mesa’s Elk Creek Marina, which his family has operated for more than 30 years. “The current forecast is — if we’re lucky we might have a two-and-a-half-month season.” 

Each month, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell, produces a report known as the 24-Month Study. The document projects three scenarios of monthly conditions in the Colorado River Basin two years out — a most probable outcome as well as a best- and worst-case scenario. 

The worst-case scenario version — known as the “probable minimum” scenario — from the Bureau’s March 24-Month Study released Tuesday shows the elevation level at Powell skirting just above 3,490 feet above sea level in March 2023, the lowest elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate power. The probable minimum projections two years out show the elevation at Powell falling below 3,490 feet. More than 3 million customers use Glen Canyon Dam electricity and the federal government generates roughly $150 million in average annual revenue from selling that hydropower. 

Jeff Lukas, an independent water and climate researcher based in Lafayette, said the March data shows that over the next two years projected levels at Powell will dip about 5-feet lower than was predicted in the February data. Lukas referred to the updated outlook as “substantially worse” when compared to the previous month. 

“That 5-foot difference may be small relative to the 75 feet that Powell has already dropped since March 2020,” Lukas said. “But when we’re flirting with minimum power pool, a 5-foot difference in expected outcomes is a big deal.”

A 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement, or DROA, between the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — set the 3,525 number as an important “target elevation” for the reservoir, providing a 35-foot buffer above the minimum power level. 

Last year, to protect the level at Powell, water managers made emergency releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Blue Mesa west of Gunnison. The releases dropped the water level at Blue Mesa by 8 feet, which forced an early end to the boating season and significantly impacted the Gunnison County economy. 

Loken said he’s been in close contact with the Bureau and the National Park Service about the upcoming season and that things aren’t looking good. He’s concerned about any additional releases from Blue Mesa. Loken said that even the possibility of a shortened season has him wondering whether it would be worth opening at all. With all the focus on Powell, Loken said, “everyone upstream is screwed.” 

Normally during this time of year, Loken said he’d be in the process of conducting interviews to hire for a season that starts May 1. Typically, he said, a staff of 30 people work at the marina, which has docks and 180 boat slips. “Normally, I’d be getting my staff ready to go.” Loken said. “There’s no ability to do that. We don’t know if we’re opening.” 

Even if they can open for a shortened stretch, Loken said that people who might normally bring their boats down for a full, five-month season could end up going elsewhere if the marina is only going to open for two months. “There’s not much more to say than I had a business that is pretty much gone,” Loken said.

“The whole thing is just a mess,” he said.

The Bureau and the Upper Basin states are working on a Drought Operations Plan that will be released in April and could dictate how the level at Powell will be managed through the spring and summer, if necessary, to further protect the water level in the lake. 

“We are awaiting additional information and projections before finalizing a plan for potential releases in 2022,” Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said in an emailed statement. “The plan, to be finalized in April, will be based on that information and subject to the parameters and requirements outlined in the Drought Response Operations Agreement.”

Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters at the Colorado River District, said next month will really tell the tale, but that the March 24-Month Study indicates that business as usual will not be sufficient. “This is a reinforcement of what we already know: That we’re going to need to come up with some plan and someone’s not going to be happy.” 

The Bureau’s 24-Month Studies rely on data from NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center, said that southwest Wyoming is having a horrible year in terms of snow conditions. “They’re fairing pretty bad,” Moser said. Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming is a big contributor to Lake Powell volume.

Western Colorado is looking a little better at this point, Moser said, with snowpack hovering somewhere between 90% and 111% of normal compared with data from the past 30 years. However, Moser said, the runoff will still be impacted by dry soil conditions. “The end of 2020, the last eight months were extremely dry,” he said. “Soil moisture conditions are still trying to recover from that.” 

A map produced by NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center that shows the soil moisture deficit in the Colorado River Basin heading into this 2021-22 winter season. (NOAA)

Lukas, the climate researcher, said that although time is running out to make up any water deficits with snowpack, crazier things have happened. In 2015, he said, record snow accumulation in May saved that year from a worse outcome.

“We’re pretty close to crunch time,” Lukas said. “Every week that goes by that we’re not improving the snowpack relative to the normal trajectory shortens the window available for that Hail Mary.”

Chris Outcalt covered Western water issues for The Colorado Sun until December 2022. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a...