Bureau of Reclamation Drought Operations Update
July 22, 2021
In the next few days, Lake Powell’s water surface elevation will drop below 3,555.10 feet, which was the previous record low reached back in April 2005 following the initial years of the drought.
Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop another two feet by the end of July and will likely continue to decline until next year’s spring runoff into the Colorado River begins.
To further help put things into perspective, since its pre-drought high elevation of 3,700 feet (95% capacity) in September 1999, Lake Powell has dropped more than 145 vertical feet, lost 16 million-acre feet of water (enough to service 64 million suburban households annually) and is currently at 33% capacity.
In anticipation of increasingly severe drought, the Upper Basin states and Reclamation entered into a Drought Response Operations Agreement in 2019. Under this agreement, we initiated delivery of supplemental water to Lake Powell.
We will continue to closely monitor conditions and projections as we work with the seven Colorado Basin states on a Drought Response Operations Plan in the coming months.
Record low Lake Powell and bad 2021 drought forecast sets stage for water cuts
The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.
The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.
A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.
“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.
The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.
Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.
The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity.