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The sun sets over Flaming Gorge Reservoir near the Wyoming/Utah border on April 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ben Neary)

Flaming Gorge reservoir in Wyoming will release 500,000 acre-feet of water under a new Drought Operations Plan to help prop up dangerously low water levels at Lake Powell.

The plan, approved Thursday by the Upper Colorado River Commission, does not call for any water to be released from Blue Mesa west of Gunnison, but also does not rule out the possibility of that being an option in the future. 

The 2022 Drought Operations Plan, agreed on by the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah will now go to the secretary of the interior for final approval. The amount of water released at Flaming Gorge will equate to a 15-foot drop in the water level at that reservoir which is a major component of southwest Wyoming’s recreation economy. 

“Developing the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan is an unprecedented and significant action by the Upper Colorado River Basin states to protect the Colorado River System for all who rely on it,” Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said in a statement. 

Last year, the Department of the Interior pursued emergency action that included releasing 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa and 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge to help prop up the water level at Lake Powell. The Utah reservoir currently sits about 3,522 feet above sea level; 3,490 feet is the level at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate hydropower, known as “minimum power pool.”  

“In total, the Upper Basin has contributed 661,000 acre-feet of water to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell,” Mitchell said, referencing the total amount of water the basin has released and will release in the next 12 months. “The Upper Basin States are doing our part to protect the Colorado River System.”

The new Drought Operations Plan says water releases from Navajo Reservoir, which straddles the Colorado-New Mexico border, could also be considered in the future, as well as “possible operational adjustments at Lake Powell in winter 2023.” 

On April 8, the Interior Department announced it was considering reducing the annual release of water from Glen Canyon Dam by about 480,000 acre-feet as another measure to help ensure levels at Lake Powell remain above 3,490 feet. Although spring runoff is expected to bring the water level back up above 3,525 feet, which water managers had set as an important benchmark elevation, some projections calculated prior to this new Drought Operations Plan had shown Powell getting closer to the 3,490 level as soon as next year

Current average snowpack levels in Colorado range from 74% to 96%. Snowpack levels in the areas that feed into Flaming Gorge are well below average at the moment. In the Upper Green River basin average snowpack sits at 85% and the snowpack is at 79% of average in the Lower Green. 

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 reporter for the Vail Daily. His freelance work has appeared in The Atlantic, Wired and Atavist. He is a recipient of the Livingston Award.