Lake Powell could drain mountain water

Cliff Thompson
August 16, 2004

Unless it snows and rains far more than normal over the next two years, you can expect to hear a lot about southeast Utah's Lake Powell, and expect water restrictions to be a daily thing in the Vail Valley.

The level of the lake has dropped so far that if drought persists, the huge hydroelectric plant at the dam may not have enough water to create power sometime in the next two years.

While that could be a boon to kayakers and rafters - because the rivers would have to flow higher to meet the demand for water farther down the river - it could curtail water use here.

If the situation worsens it will hurt water users in Eagle County, particularly those with water rights filed after 1922 when the Colorado River Interstate Compact was signed, said Scott Balcom of Glenwood Springs. He's the Colorado state representative to the seven state Colorado River Compact, a cooperative board that administers the Lake Powell reservoir.

"There's a 20 percent chance that Lake Powell will go below minimum power pool sometime in the next two years," said Balcom. The generating station requires enough water to keep the generating turbines turning.

If the worst happens, the matter will be largely up to Mother Nature. If things stay dry, the lake will likely achieve levels hitherto not anticipated. This year water released from the dam will total 1.9 million acre-feet more than what flowed into the lake - and that's occurring with water releases that are just 83 percent of average of 8.2 million acre feet.

That massive reservoir, which when full contains 24 million acre-feet - or enough water for nearly 1 million people - has shrunk from five years of drought and now is just 40 percent full.

The lake is losing 8 percent of its content this year. If the rate of drawdown continues - it is dropping two feet every week - the lake may be unusable in as little as five years.

Endangered fish
If there is not enough water for the power generating station known as the Western Area Power Administration there will be troubling chain reaction. The first effect would be loss of power on a grid that, on the energy-gobbling West Coast, already has summertime demands that exceed supply.

And sales drop at the generating station, there will be less money for the number of environmental programs it funds all along the Colorado River.

In the upper Colorado Basin, the fund generates nearly $3 million to aid the recovery of four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River. They have been decimated by diversions of river water for irrigation, which has left little water for spawning.

If that source of money dries up, it could result in water being taken from Eagle County and elsewhere in the Colorado River to either fill the reservoir or help the endangered fish.

"We rely on that power fund for species recovery," Balcom said. "If that species crashes, there are some potentially adverse consequences (for water users.)"

Balcom said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would then be forced to reassess the activities of permittees on federal lands across the Colorado River Basin that could be lowering flows in the river. Those permits were issued with the assumption that they would not affect the endangered species.

Vail Resorts operates its ski areas under special use permits from the U.S. Forest Service, but it probably would not be affected because it relies heavily on water stored in Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale, said water attorney Glenn Porzak.

Weather guessing
The underlying issue behind Lake Powell's woes is some flawed rain and snowfall assumptions that the 1922 Colorado River Compact is based upon. The compact is a water sharing agreement between the states through which the Colorado River flows.

Balcom said the forecasts that drove the water sharing agreement were too optimistic.

"In the past the water users and Bureau of Reclamation relied on records dating back to 1906," Balcom said. "Those 95 years have been some of the wettest on record."

Not reflected were the dry years from 1995 to the present, including 2002, the driest year in more than 300 years. Precipitation levels across the region ranged from 25 to 55 percent of average.

Recent precipitation levels have not come close to meeting the water demands that require 8.23 million acre-feet be released from Lake Powell to the West Coast.

"If we don't devise a solution for this there could be some pretty serious impacts," Balcom said.

But, he said, there is some room for optimism.

"I think there's a pretty good chance that Mother Nature will bail us out of this." Balcom said. "If not, we'll have to find a way to deal with it."

Mountain storage could blunt Powell's effects
The water situation may not be as serious for residents on the eastern end of Eagle County because of supplies stored upstream in a trio of reservoirs, said an attorney who handles local water affairs.

"I don't think you would see much of an impact because we have backed up our water rights with in-basin storage," said Glenn Porzak. He works with Eagle River Water and Sanitation District that supplies water to 22,000 residents from East Vail to Wolcott.

The district has water stored in Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale that Porzak said should be sufficient. The main effect from the lowering of Lake Powell would be on water users who divert water from the Western Slope to the thirsty cities like Denver and Aurora.

Eagle Park was created in 1996 and its permit would not be affected by a potential water call from Lake Powell because it doesn't rely on a federal permit. In addition to Eagle Park, the water district and others have water stored in Black Lakes atop Vail Pass and in Homestake Reservoir southwest of Red Cliff.

Cliff Thompson can be contacted via e-mail at or by calling (970) 949-0555 ext. 450.