Hydropower Production Threatened

According to a February memorandum from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), both Lake Powell (of the Upper Colorado Basin) and Lake Mead (of the Lower Colorado Basin) could soon become too low to operate their hydropower plants if conditions don't improve. At the May 14th Southwest Basin Roundtable (SBR) meeting in Cortez, John McClow, Commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, provided an overview of this developing situation on the Colorado River. Water shortages from a persistent drought in the Southwest have left both lakes dangerously low, threatening electric supplies that are relied on by 5.8 million customers.

According to simulations, as early as 2015 Lake Powell could drop to, or below, the minimum power-pool level required to operate the hydroelectric generators. If the pattern materializes, the level would stay below the power pool for years and by 2020 still not have recovered to power-producing levels. Allowing Lake Powell to fall below the minimum power pool has numerous adverse impacts, according to a CWCB memo: 

 -  It would result in dramatically higher electric costs for cities, towns, and farms throughout much of             Colorado, increasing rates two to four times.
-  Funding for irrigation projects derived from power plant revenues would dry up.
-  Reduced capacity to make releases from Glen Canyon Dam threatens compliance with Colorado      River Compact obligations. The result could be litigation and curtailment of water use within the Upper Basin states, which include Colorado.

The problem is a looming concern for reservoirs in the Colorado River basin upstream from the Lake Powell. Those reservoir managers face the possibility of having to deliver water downstream to boost levels and avert a shutdown of the plant. Local reservoirs, including Animas-La Plata, Blue Mesa, McPhee, and Navajo could potentially be tapped for additional water under the "call" system if conditions don't improve in the next one to two years. Now is the time to have the discussion of how to deal with the situation unfolding at Lake Powell, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir at Dolores. "If Powell becomes too low to operate it would trigger a crisis, so we need to decide early on how we would deal with that," Preston said during a meeting on reservoir operations.

In light of these real and immediate threats, the governor's Colorado River representative directed a group of Colorado water advisers to engage six Colorado River Basin states in confidential brainstorming and system modeling for the purpose of developing an emergency response plan. Implementing demand-management programs to bolster Lake Powell could involve voluntary lease-fallowing or deficit irrigation. "The water-management world cannot be in denial about drought, and we have to be mindful and adaptable," Preston said. "There is already talk about making contributions to bring Powell up. It could be sooner rather than later where we are forced to confront demands larger than our basin."