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How recent legislation is supporting drought resilience in the Colorado River Basin (Part 1)

Ariel Brenner

Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. Source: Shutterstock

The Colorado River Basin – which supplies water to over 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural land in the western United States and northwestern Mexico – is experiencing historically low levels and flows.

The nearly-1,450-mile river, which has historically run from the Colorado Rockies to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, no longer empties into the sea. The Basin recently caught the attention of the United Nations, which warned that Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States – are reaching dangerously low levels and may soon achieve “dead pool” status, meaning that water will no longer be able to flow downstream.

This poses significant risks to cities and areas in the seven states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada – and 30 Indigenous tribes who rely on the Basin for their water supply. The nation’s agriculture will also take a blow, as the Colorado is responsible for sustaining 15 and 13 percent of the nation’s crops and livestock, respectively.

There are also significant energy implications. Lake Powell, which is already operating at a quarter of its original size, could drop by another 38 feet by as early as July. At that point, surface levels would reach underwater openings through the Glen Canyon Dam, inducing whirlpools and shutdowns of hydroelectric turbines. This would impact 4.5 million people, many of whom rely on the low-cost power that Glen Canyon provides. A facility failure would force communities – including nonprofit rural electric operatives, Native American tribes, military bases, and small cities and towns – to source significantly more expensive power on the open market.

This summer, as the West continued to experience its most severe drought in at least 1,200 years, the Biden administration directed Basin states to formulate an agreement to cut water by 15 percent. After states failed to reach an agreement by the federal deadline in August, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) announced a Tier 2 shortage, triggering water use cuts in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico for 2023. In October, the BOR announced its intent to further cut water deliveries to California, Arizona, and Nevada.

These reductions apportionments have been guided by the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), a set of agreements that states and the Bureau negotiated in 2019. The DCP has also directed the temporary movement of water from the Aspinall, Flaming George, and Navajo Reservoirs to Lake Powell, to prevent its waters from reaching levels that would curb hydroelectric operations. Additionally, the BOR is investigating potential upgrades to the dam to allow water to be released at lower elevations.

The strengthened measures taken under the DCP, as well as recent legislation, are likely to help effectively avoid the most severe cases projected for the Basin. Part 2 of this post will describe how these policies, including actions authorized under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, are offering robust solutions to the drought in the West.

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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