Utah, three states finalize plan to protect Lake Powell, move water from Flaming Gorge

April 21, 2022

Utah, three states finalize plan to protect Lake Powell, move water from Flaming Gorge

SALT LAKE CITY (April 21, 2022)  —As drought conditions worsen across the western United States, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico have finalized plans to optimize water allocation, protect water infrastructure, and alleviate pressure from a dwindling water supply.

The 2022 Drought Response Operations authorizes a release of 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Dam, as well as possible follow-up releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico later in the year, depending on available release volumes. The release from Flaming Gorge is anticipated to begin around May 1, 2022, and run through April 30, 2023. 

In March 2022, Lake Powell dropped below 3,525 feet in elevation, raising concerns water levels would soon drop to an elevation of 3,490 feet, allowing air into turbines which would jeopardize the ability to generate hydroelectric power. Today, Flaming Gorge reservoir is at approximately 80% capacity while Lake Powell sits at only 24%. 

“The water level at Lake Powell has dropped much more rapidly than our models anticipated and has made it necessary for us to take expedited measures to address the situation,” said Gene Shawcroft, Chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah and Utah’s River Commissioner. “Fortunately, our sister states in the Upper Colorado River basin and the Bureau of Reclamation have recognized the severity of the situation and we were able to form a plan for the next 12-month period that is in everyone’s best interest.”

The coordinated release is part of the Drought Response Operation Agreement (DROA), an element of the Drought Contingency Plan passed by Congress in 2019 and signed into law by President Donald Trump, which outlines specific steps to avoid dangerously low water levels at Lake Powell. 

The decision comes just days after the Department of Interior announced a proposal to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell. That action would amount to a reduction of 480,000 acre-feet in 2022.

“By keeping more water in Lake Powell and adding to it from upstream reservoirs, through both the 2022 Drought Response Operation and the Department of Interior’s proposed action, we will help address immediate issues, even as prolonged drought conditions persist,” said Shawcroft. “It’s critical that we take action to ensure Lake Powell maintains a water level that prevents damage to Glen Canyon Dam infrastructure and ensures the communities of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation continue to access water.”

Moving approximately 500,000 acre-feet of water out of Flaming Gorge is anticipated to drop the reservoir’s water level by around 15 feet.

“We recognize the concern this may cause people who love to spend time at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and that it won’t fully solve the recreation concerns for those who use Lake Powell,” said Shawcroft. “Ideally, we’d have enough water to fill all our reservoirs but that’s not the hand Mother Nature has dealt us.”

Key Elements of the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan

  • Total releases of approximately 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Dam between May 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023;
  • Possible releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir (Aspinall Unit) in fall 2022 and winter 2023, contingent upon available release volumes;
  • Possible releases from Navajo Reservoir in fall 2022 and winter 2023, contingent upon available release volumes; 
  • Possible operational adjustments at Lake Powell in winter 2023; and
  • No anticipated recovery of Drought Response Operations release volumes through the term of the 2022 Plan