May 5 -- For the first time, federal officials are taking extraordinary measures to help boost drought-ridden Lake Powell in the western United States while protecting hydropower operations that produce electricity for millions of homes and businesses.
Located on the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell is currently at an all-time low surface elevation of 3,522 feet since it was filled in the 1960s -- holding less than one-fourth of its full capacity. The lowest point at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower is 3,490 feet, its "minimum power pool," according to the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation.
"The facility has never operated under such conditions for an extended period," according to bureau officials.
The Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that it will delay the planned release of water from the Colorado River reservoir of Lake Powell to downstream states (Arizona, California and Nevada) by holding back nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water. Officials are hoping that withholding the water will boost the reservoir for an additional 12 months.
In addition, another 500,000 acre-feet of water will be injected into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming line in accordance with a plan worked out by upper-basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation last month.
These two emergency actions "should add about 16 feet of elevation," Wayne Pullan, the bureau's Upper Colorado Regional Director, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
"Today's decision reflects the truly unprecedented challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and will provide operational certainty for the next year," Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement. "Everyone who relies on the Colorado River must continue to work together to reduce uses and think of additional proactive measure we can take in the months and years ahead to rebuild our reservoirs."
"The Department of the Interior remains committed to addressing the challenges of climate change by using science-based, innovative strategies and working cooperatively with all the diverse communities" that depend on the Colorado River, Trujillo added.
About 5 million customers in seven states rely on the dam for electricity -- Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Extreme drought conditions have diminished Lake Powell and the other major reservoir, Lake Mead, 316 miles downstream on the Colorado River, to unprecedented levels over the past two decades, according to experts.
"We're talking about multiple seasons of well-below-average rain and snow that have kind of gotten us to this point, coupled with exceptionally high temperatures which we attribute to regional warming from global warming," Justin Mankin, an assistant geography professor at Dartmouth College and a co-lead at NOAA's drought task force, told AccuWeather.
According to researchers at the University of Utah and U.S. Geological Survey, sediment has further contributed to the reservoir's demise.
A report published in March in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation found that Lake Powell lost 6.8% of its storage capacity between 1963 and 2018 due to the sediment that had been deposited in the reservoir bed. The report also confirmed that the lake has lost 4% of that capacity since 1986.
Water levels in the two lakes have drastically dropped to such an extent that boaters discovered a decades-old dead body, an apparent shooting victim from the 1970s or '80s, stuffed in a barrel on Sunday at Lake Mead.
At Lake Powell, a family on a fishing trip discovered a shipwrecked boat that had been exposed by the receding waters in April 2021.