The first step is to release more water from the upper Colorado River this year. The second is that the water will be retained in Lake Powell itself, instead of being sent to downstream states.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation expects the double actions to increase Lake Powell by nearly one million acre-feet of water. The reservoir held about 5.8 million acre-feet of water as of Tuesday, the bureau said, though its total capacity is about 25 million acre-feet.
Without the emergency measures, the bureau estimated there was about a 25% chance that the Glen Canyon Dam would have stopped producing hydroelectricity by January. The dam generates electricity for as many as 5.8 million homes and businesses in seven states.
The agency said in a statement that Tuesday’s decision was intended to protect “hydroelectric generation, key facility infrastructure and water supplies to the City of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo nation”.
The emergency measures will give the federal government 12 months as it considers longer-term measures.
“We’ve never taken this step before, but the potential risk on the horizon demands quick action,” Undersecretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo told reporters. “We need to work together to stabilize the reservoir before we face a bigger crisis.”
Lake Powell has dropped about 100 feet in the past three years as the West has been beleaguered by drought. With the drop in water level, the Glen Canyon Dam lost about 16% of its capacity to generate electricity.
Bryan Hill, general manager of the electric utility in Page, Arizona, likened the situation to doomsday.
“We’re knocking on the door of judgment day,” Hill previously told CNN. “Judgment day being when we have no water to give anyone.”
Decisions made for Lake Powell also affect its downstream neighbor, Lake Mead, which is the nation’s largest reservoir.
Water cuts for those who depend on Lake Mead began in January, and Tuesday’s decision could lead to further restrictions.
Lake Mead’s water level is now low enough to expose one of the original 1971 reservoir intake valves for the first time. The valve can no longer draw water, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority. , the agency responsible for managing water resources for 2.2 million people in southern Nevada, including Las Vegas.
Over the weekend, authorities made another disturbing discovery prompted by falling water levels in Lake Mead: a body in a barrel police say is likely a 1980s homicide victim.
“The lake has drained dramatically over the past 15 years,” said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Lt. Ray Spencer. “It is likely that we will find more bodies that have been dumped in Lake Mead” as the water level drops further.