Civics & Governance: “It’s Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain is Wide Open.”

Greg Walcher:

That is precisely what has happened at Lake Powell, yet the report has been largely ignored. It should be required reading for everyone concerned about the Colorado River.

Lake Powell was created for the primary purpose of administering the Interstate Compact – ensuring the Upper Basin states can deliver the water they are required to send downstream, even in dry years. It was completed in 1966 and finally filled to its 27 million acre-foot capacity by 1980. But since 2000, the water level has dropped 94 feet, even though the Upper Basin states have consistently used only 60 percent of their entitlements. The lake holds barely 10 million acre-feet today.

In reservoirs designed for multi‐year carryover storage, “declines are expected in dry years, and recovery is expected in wet years.” But at Lake Powell, “When large inflows do occur, current operational rules immediately trigger large releases.” In the extremely wet year of 2011, for example, inflow at Lake Powell was five million acre-feet above average. But the Bureau immediately opened the gates and sent it all downstream to Lake Mead, benefitting California, Las Vegas, and fish. No wonder Lake Powell cannot recover during wet years.

The report acknowledges that several dry years contributed to the water level drop, “but ultimately it is the operational rules that are slowly but surely draining Lake Powell.” Under the Interstate Compact and in international treaty, the Bureau was supposed to release about 8.3 million acre feet per year for the Lower Basin and Mexico. But in all but four years between 2000 and 2018, the agency released more than that, a cumulative total of 11 million acre-feet beyond what is required. “Had those excess releases remained in Lake Powell, the lake level would not have declined,” as the report notes.

Useful. So much of reporting fails to inquire. Stenography reigns.

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