The Colorado River is sending a message

By Gary Wockner

It feels like an apocalypse in the Southwest — wildfires, floods, drought, heat, smoke. This was not the norm when I moved to Colorado 35 years ago. Climate scientists may have predicted the arrival of these extreme events, but many admit their predictions have come true faster than they expected.

One outcome they pinpointed was the impact of heat and drought on water flows in the Colorado River. For the last 20 years this new climate, combined with booming human population growth, has parched landscapes, drained reservoirs and incited talk of water wars across the region. Lake Powell on the Colorado River, and Glen Canyon Dam which creates the reservoir, have become casualties of this strained environment.

Lake Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States, but in the last year alone its water level  has dropped 52 feet and the reservoir now sits at 31.4% full.

If you’re a pessimist, that’s over 68% empty. Water managers are already imposing cuts in water deliveries in some states; all their choices are filled with political pitfalls.

A further complication is that the federal government operates a hydroelectric plant at Glen Canyon Dam that provides cheap electricity to parts of the Southwest. The day is coming when the hydroelectric turbines will stop for want of water to spin them.

To save the lake and generate electricity, the government needs water. But where will that water come from?

Upstream of Lake Powell, in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are millions of acres of irrigated farms and ranches that suck massive amounts of water out of the Colorado River before it reaches Lake Powell. If those farms and ranches quit taking water and instead ran that water downstream, the lake and its electricity could be saved. To ensure that outcome, the federal government has hatched a plan it calls “demand management,” which proposes to buy or lease massive amounts of farm and ranch water to prop up Lake Powell.

On the one hand, the farmers and ranchers would get paid for the water, and likely paid very well. If I were a rancher who owned water, I’d sit comfortably until the offering price for my water made me even more comfortable.

On the other hand, lots of people and businesses believe that irrigated farming, ranching and outdoor recreation are not only central to the region’s economy, but also to its culture. Should that economy — and the soul of the Southwest — be sacrificed to save a manmade reservoir and its hydroelectricity?

I’m torn by this dilemma. If farms and ranches are dried up, more water flows down the river. More water in the river benefits fish and the environment. But there’s another solution: We can save farms and ranches and instead drain Lake Powell, freeing the Colorado River to flow free through 169 miles of a drowned and beautiful place called Glen Canyon.

There’s always the “save hydroelectricity” argument, but it’s a red herring. There are other ways to generate electricity, including wind and solar. In fact, if you’ve ever stood near Glen Canyon Dam and its hydropower plant, you can’t help noticing that it’s surrounded by millions of acres of dry, sun-drenched landscape that would make a great place for a solar electricity farm.

Electricity can be replaced; farms and ranches cannot.

As we grapple with these tradeoffs, it’s important to remember that even lower water flows are projected for the future, plus more severe heat and drought that will become the “new normal” for the Colorado River and the entire region. Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir, now has inactive hydro turbines because there’s not enough water to turn them, its dusty lakebed a harbinger of what’s to come for Lake Powell.

Let’s also remember that Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963 and it and Lake Powell are only 58 years old. The region lived without them before, and it can live without them again. Now, nature is forcing our hand, telling us that it’s time to breach the dam and let the Colorado River run free.

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a river-protection activist based in Colorado and runs the nonprofit Save the Colorado.

Image above of Willow Creek Canyon once a popular side canyon for boaters. Now a sandy wash. Image courtesy of Glen Canyon Institute staff.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

08/23/2021 Anchorage Daily Press Anchorage AK
08/23/2021 Vail Daily Vail CO
08/23/2021 Rawlins Times Rawlins WY
08/24/2021 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
08/24/2021 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
08/24/2021 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
08/24/2021 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
08/25/2021 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
08/24/2021 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
08/25/2021 Craig Daily Press Craig co
08/25/2021 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
08/25/2021 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
08/25/2021 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
08/26/2021 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
08/23/2021 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
08/25/2021 Adventure Journal CA
08/26/2021 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
08/27/2021 Taos News Taos NM
08/27/2021 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
08/29/2021 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
08/29/2021 Denver Post Denver CO
08/29/2021 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
08/25/2021 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
08/31/2021 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
08/31/2021 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
08/31/2021 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
09/03/2021 In These Times Rural Edition OR
08/30/2021 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
09/01/2021 Sopris Sun Carbondale CO
09/01/2021 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
09/01/2021 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
09/16/2021 Big Horn County News Hardin MT
09/16/2021 Park Record Park City UT
09/20/2021 Colorado Central Magazine Salida CO
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8 months ago

Another option is to use this as a pump storage system, generate electricity at night and pump the water back during the day using Solar.

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