The United States Bureau of Reclamation announced this week it will hold back about 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell instead of releasing it into Lake Mead—the nation’s largest human-made reservoir that supplies water to about 25 million people. Additionally, about 500,000 acre-feet of water be released into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is approximately 455 river miles upstream, per the statement.
“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River basin,” Tanya Trujillo, an Interior Department assistant secretary, said in a press conference, per Reuters' Daniel Trotta. “But the conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demand that we take prompt action.”
Lake Mead and Lake Powell are part of a system that provides water to more than 40 million people, and water levels in both lakes have dropped to historic lows as the West experiences the most severe megadrought in 1,200 years. Climate change is at least partially responsible, according to a study in Nature Climate Change.
At 3,522 feet, Lake Powell’s water surface elevation is at its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1960s, per a statement. Officials say the lowest level at which Glen Canyon Dam can still generate hydropower is 3,490 feet.
In August 2021, the government issued a water shortage declaration for Lake Mead, reducing Southern Nevada’s water allocation by 7 billion gallons in 2022. Earlier this week, an intake valve became exposed for the first time in the lake, rendering it unable to draw water. Intake valves help transport the water from the lake to water treatment plants.
“We’re knocking on the door of judgment day – judgment day being when we don’t have any water to give anybody,” Bryan Hill, who runs the public power utility in Page, Arizona, tells CNN’s René Marsh.
The megadrought, which began in 2000, will likely persist until at least 2030.
“This is a temporary, temporary action that helps significantly and can make a difference, but it is not the long-term solution,” Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, tells the Deseret News’ Amy Joi O'Donoghue. “We know we have a lot of work to do. We have all got to change our minds on how we deal with water.”
Earlier this week, the low water levels in Lake Mead led to the discovery of the body of a man in a barrel who was likely shot in the 1980s. Officials say more human remains will likely be unearthed as water levels continue to drop.