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The ‘Chickens are Coming Home to Roost’, as the first major water calls are made on the reservoir systems of three western states.

As the historic drought in the western United States has reached epic proportions, the consequences are becoming more obvious, and more ominous. Three weeks ago, the federal government suddenly ordered that millions of gallons of water be released from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, and New Mexico’s Navajo Reservoir into Lake Powell.

The goal; to save Lake Powell’s hydropower system. At the moment, Lake Powell’s water inflow is 52 percent of average.

Drought is nothing new to the West: we have been experiencing the impacts of drought for the past 20 years. Over time though, the impacts have become too obvious to ignore. Last summer and this summer, with historic and massive wildfires raging in several states, with uncertain weather patterns, and low snowpacks, the crisis has pushed both lakes, Powell and Mead, to historic lows. This means that for the first time. the emergency release of water required by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project Compact has been triggered.

Some 181,000 acre-feet of water from these three reservoirs combined, will be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. It’s a ‘just in the nick of time’ action.

Lake Powell has dropped so low that there is a real danger to the generation ability of its hydropower dams; power plants that supply millions of homes with electricity. The sale of this power generates revenue that supports other major environmental programs, including such critical programs as the Colorado River endangered species program. If water levels continue to drop (which is exactly what is happening) the program could stop operating as early as next year.

There are seven western states in the compact that divided up the use of the flow of the Colorado River. The reservoirs were constructed in the 1960s. They are a sort of giant water bank account; holding a reserve of water, should some crisis occur on the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. The reserve is intended to hold enough water to fulfill these state’s legal obligations to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona, and California. These three states are known as the Lower Basin states.

This wasn’t seen as a problem because — there seemed to be plenty of water. At first, no one realized that the water is actually over-allocated among the seven states because the compact was created during the wettest decade of the 20th century. The reservoirs filled over decades, recreation economies developed around them, and no one paid much attention to what might happen if the water were ever actually needed.

Well, now it is.

This might be the 20th year of documented drought here in the West, but it is almost surely not the last. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is estimating that there is a three percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of drought calls continuing in 2022. The risk of a hydropower shutdown is now more than a remote possibility; it is a real threat to the West.

Here in Colorado, Blue Mesa Reservoir (fed by the Gunnison River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado River) is at just 43 percent capacity, which could impact its role as a major tourism mecca in Southwestern Colorado.

For a much more in-depth look at the situation regarding the West’s reservoirs, go to:

Editor note: Ark Valley Voice journalist Tara Flanagan has been named a Colorado News Collaborative Water Fellow, and over the coming months, she will be producing news stories about the connections between the Colorado and Arkansas River basins, the impacts of water shortages on agriculture and local economies, recreation and tourism and the quality of life of the Arkansas River Valley and the San Luis Valley.

Featured image: Glen Canyon Dam, Upper Colorado. The hydroelectric power plant at Lake Powell in view on the right bank, has eight generators producing electrical power for millions of homes and businesses below the dam. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation