Lake Powell Water Shortage May Halt Hydropower Generation in 2 Years

The United States' largest reservoirs are hitting all-time lows.
Derya Ozdemir
Glen Canyon Dem over Lake Powell.simonkr/iStock

The United States' largest reservoirs are fast depleting, and the water crisis may quickly turn into a power crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation has released updated modeling projections of major reservoir levels in the Colorado River system on September 22, and things aren't looking up. 

There's a one-in-three possibility Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir in the U.S., may fall below a crucial threshold in the coming years, thanks to the climate change-fueled megadrought and rising water demand. This would greatly reduce the hydropower generation at the reservoir, affecting millions. 

The predictions show that Lake Powell and Lake Mead will continue to be at risk of reaching critically low elevations as a result of the severe drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Powell has a 3 percent possibility of dropping below the 3,490 feet (1,064 meters) barrier required to keep the turbines spinning next year, and a 34 percent chance in 2023. The Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell, generates enough hydroelectricity to power 5.8 million structures when it is fully operational, so millions of people across the West may be affected. 

The reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, on the other hand, feeds water to 25 million people and is the largest reservoir in the U.S. -- it's also facing a similar fate. The water level dropped to 1,071 feet above sea level on June 9, breaking a previous low established in 2016, and according to Glen Canyon Institute, the Lake Mead reservoir will probably never fill again. The video embedded below shows a side-by-side comparison of the water level of Lake Mead in June 2021 and what it looked like in 1941. Since 2000, the lake surface has dropped 140 feet, and the stark difference is clear as day.

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There's a 66 percent chance that Lake Mead will dip below 1,025 feet (312 meters) in 2025, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. This is a critical threshold that, if exceeded, would result in a Tier 3 water crisis. The dam provides drinking water to Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Mexico, as well as generating electricity for parts of Arizona, California, and Nevada. As a result of the drought, extreme heat, and fire risk, the region would face an environmental crisis, putting millions of people on the verge of severe water restrictions. According to Gizmodo, the drought has already shut down hydropower generation at least one dam in California, forcing the state to open five temporary natural gas facilities to compensate for the deficit.

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