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The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday finalized the details of an “extraordinary action” to protect drought-stricken Lake Powell by keeping nearly 500,000 acre-feet of water in the Utah reservoir that had been previously scheduled for delivery to the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California, as well as releasing an additional 500,000 acre-feet to Powell from Flaming Gorge reservoir. 

“We are taking extraordinary actions today because now is the time to do more,” Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science, said on the press call. “We do not have time to waste.”

Although the major bullet points of the plan have been discussed publicly during the past several weeks, Trujillo’s remarks Tuesday highlighted the urgency and scope of the challenge facing water managers across the Colorado River Basin.

“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River Basin but the conditions we see today and the potential risks we see on the horizon demand we take prompt action,” said Trujillo, who noted that the actions are designed to protect Lake Powell this year. 

Trujillo first formally outlined the possibility of a plan to leave water in Lake Powell in a letter she sent April 8 to all seven Colorado River Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. In the letter, Trujillo addressed the critical need to protect the tenuous situation at Powell, where earlier this year water levels dipped below a key benchmark elevation of 3,525 feet above sea level. 

If the water level reaches 3,490 feet, the Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate power. The dam produces power that is relied on by more than 3 million people. 

“In such circumstances,” Trujillo wrote in her letter, “Glen Canyon Dam facilities face unprecedented operational reliability challenges, water users in the Basin face increased uncertainty, downstream resources could be impacted, the western electrical grid would experience uncertain risk and instability, and water and power supplies to the West and Southwestern United States would be subject to increased operational uncertainty.” 

In a response letter sent two weeks later, representatives from each of the seven states agreed that some action needed to be taken. In addition to all seven states OKing the idea to leave water in Powell, the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — presented a plan to further raise the water levels at the Utah reservoir by releasing an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge.

“Today’s announcement is about responding to a crisis in a timely manner with broad consensus,” Trujillo said. 

Trujillo said these immediate actions will buy the Bureau and water managers in the basin more time to come up with more solutions. She highlighted the need to develop additional conservation measures to maximize efficiency and use less water across the basin and also said that she believed federal funding will be available to help with these tasks.

“We have unprecedented drought conditions not only in the Colorado River Basin but all around the West,” Trujillo said.

She added, “Our climate is changing and our actions are responsible for that.”

The regional directors for both the Upper and Lower Colorado Basin also spoke on the call, highlighting the “unprecedented” conditions forcing the action. “Reclamation stands ready to accelerate funding to ensure that we reduce water use and maximize efficiency given the conditions in the basin and the declining levels in our reservoirs,” said Jaci Gould, regional director for the Lower Basin states. “We simply all need to do more and we need to do more now.”

The official announcement Tuesday also prompted environmental groups to highlight the impact that climate change is having on the river. 

“We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can control our demands and how quickly we develop and implement solutions,” Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director at The Nature Conservancy, said. “While the decision to lower the release amount is an important step, it is only a temporary fix. We must address the underlying problem, which is that we are using more water than the river provides.”

Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director at Western Resource, called the finalized actions to protect Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam an innovative one-two punch — in the short term. Now, Miller said, it’s time to focus more on potential long-term solutions. 

“This is coordinated operations that are meant to prevent a crisis this year,” Miller said. “But they don’t address or talk about the need for more long term sustainable solutions which would include reducing demands in the Upper Basin.”

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...