Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona, holds back the massive Lake Powell on March 25, 2022. Drought conditions in the West have led levels of water in the lake to drop near where the dam will no longer be able to generate electricity. (Worm Charbonneau, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A long-running effort to revive four fish species that once thrived in the Colorado River is poised to lose millions of dollars in funding due to sagging hydropower production in the Colorado River Basin. 

Since 2000, the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program has received 65% of its funding from hydropower sales, according to program director Julie Stahli. But, Stahli said, given the uncertainties over how much water will continue to flow through the Colorado River, the program can’t count on that money into the future. The program’s supporters, she said, are in the process of figuring out an alternate funding scheme.

That 65% chunk equates to about $6 million annually, Stahli said. The program also gets money from the Fish and Wildlife Service and from each state that participates — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Stahli said the Bureau of Reclamation has included money in its budget to cover the lost hydropower revenue, but she must figure out what to do beyond 2023. 

“It’s such a large piece that I don’t know if we can survive without someone coming in,” Stahli said. “We have meetings multiple times a week trying to make sure we can come to a conclusion on how to fill that gap.” 

Selling power

The Western Area Power Administration, which operates within the Department of Energy, markets the hydropower generated at dams along the Colorado River Storage Project, or CRSP, collectively the federal dams and reservoirs that store and move water around the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. 

The power produced at those dams — about 5.5 billion kilowatt-hours on average — is used by 5 million people in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The sale of that power generates more than $150 million a year. Much of that money is used for fixed costs to operate and maintain the system. However, some of the revenue has helped fund programs such as the Upper Colorado Fish Recovery Program, and a sort of sister program, the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. 

Lower flows along the river have started to present challenges with hydropower generation. So far this year the agency has delivered 38% less energy than normal because of low water levels in the CRSP system, WAPA spokeswoman Teresa Waugh said. In December, WAPA increased rates for the first time in nine years. 

“Persisting drought is the primary driver for the current and near-term Basin Fund balance concerns, which become particularly acute should reservoirs drop below minimum power pool elevations, and the probability of that occurring continues to increase,” Waugh wrote in an email. “In addition, there are other systemic factors long term, like the growing need to reinvest in the aging infrastructure that is reliant on Basin Fund balances.”

WAPA doesn’t release midyear financial numbers but Waugh said it would be reasonable to assume a 38% reduction in power generation would equate to roughly a 38% decrease in power sales revenue. 

In mid-March, Lake Powell dipped below 3,525 feet above sea level, an important “target elevation” identified in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans signed by all seven Colorado River Basin states. The target was set because the 3,525 elevation provides a 35-foot buffer above the level at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate power, 3,490 feet. Lake Powell is expected to rise back above 3,525 feet this spring, however some long term projections show the lake getting even closer to 3,490 feet next year.  

Stahli said she’s confident the program will find the funding it needs. “The really heartwarming thing from my perspective is that I have not yet heard from any of our partners that they are willing to walk away from the benefits of this program.” 

Really old fish

The Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program was created in the late 1980s and has focused on recovering four species of fish — Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail chub

The turnaround for the razorback sucker, Stahli said, which was listed as endangered in 1991, has been particularly remarkable. This past summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed downlisting the razorback sucker from endangered to threatened. Stahli said estimates suggest there are now 36,000 actively reproducing and migrating in the Upper Basin. “In the Upper Basin, the razorback sucker was essentially extirpated.” 

Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director at Western Resource Advocates, said the recovery program has been integral in preventing the extinction of fish, which have existed in the basin for hundreds of years. “These are really old fish,” Miller said. “It’s helped these species stay alive.” 

Miller said the program has involved stocking fish, changing dam operations to better suit the species, and knocking back nonnative fish — and that the work needs to continue. “It’s not like you can quit doing this work,” he said. “There’s a lot of maintenance you have to do.” 

The humpback chub, Stahli said, was recently downlisted from endangered to threatened thanks to work done by all the partners in the program. Stahli said they’re hoping to pull off the same kind of turnaround with the Colorado pikeminnow, populations of which are on a downward trend. 

Both the Upper Colorado and the San Juan fish recovery programs are also going through a congressional reauthorization process. The two programs are currently set to expire on Sept. 30, 2023. U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Lafayette, has introduced a bill that would extend the program for another year. The bill has already been passed in the House and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.  

Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, a regional group that represents hydroelectric power customers on the CRSP system, which is also a partner in the Upper Colorado fish recovery program, said she was glad the program was able to figure out funding for this year. 

James said CREDA is also keeping an eye on the broader CRSP system. “We’re going to be looking for some assistance from Congress to help maintain those facilities in working order,” she said. 

A river conundrum 

James said that CREDA is still analyzing the numbers, but that if Glen Canyon Dam, which accounts for between 75% and 80% of the power production on the CRSP system, were to dip below minimum power pool, hydropower rates could triple. “We’re starting to look at those rates.”

If you use electricity or drink water, James said, you have a stake in this. “We’re all in this conundrum together,” she said. “This is real.” 

Colorado Springs Utilities is a WAPA customer. However, that power represents only about 1.5% of the capacity the utility counts toward its service peak. “Still, it is a situation we are closely monitoring,” spokesman Steve Barry said. “While CRSP represents a small amount of energy in our overall portfolio, it is usually stable and a low cost source of energy to serve our customers.” 

Colorado Springs Utilities’ current contract for its WAPA power expires on Sept. 30, 2024. Barry said the utility is evaluating the contract but that no decision has been made on whether to renew. 

For her part, Stahli said that none of these water challenges on the Colorado River are going away anytime soon. “And so,” she said, “I think programs like this and partnerships that allow a whole bunch of organizations to come together and talk about what’s important to them and how we can move forward collectively is the only way we can make it through.”

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...