Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam is at risk of reaching dead pool — that is, the water level at which a dam’s turbines are no longer able to generate power. A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation puts the risk at 3 percent next year, escalating to 34 percent in 2023, and up to 66 percent in 2025.
As Lake Powell’s water levels continue to drop, a new report released by the Bureau of Reclamation projects the possibility America’s second-biggest dam could be too low to produce electricity by July 2022.
Seven States, Two Lakes, One River and Not Enough Water to Go Around
The Colorado River, with its intricate network of tributaries and dams, provides water to 40 million people across seven states and northern Mexico. The dam project made Lake Powell the country’s second-largest manmade reservoir, producing electricity to power to Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Nebraska.
In August, for the first time ever, federal officials were forced to declare a Tier 1 water shortage, immediately and significantly reducing the amount of water that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico can take from the river. With Lake Mead and Lake Powell both at around 30 percent of capacity, the states that depend on the Colorado River are entering uncharted territory, with difficult and unpopular decisions being increasingly unavoidable. Burgeoning populations across the Southwest exacerbate the problem.
James Lawrence Powell saw this coming. The veteran geologist, with a PhD in geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served for 12 years on the National Science Board. Powell has explained his concerns through the 14 books he’s written, the most recent of which is a climate change novel called “The 2084 Report: An Oral History of the Great Warming.” One of his earlier books, “Dead Pool” (2008), warned of this developing crisis.
Powell recently spoke with Governing.com Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson about the disruptive effects of global climate change on an already overallocated river, along with what the future might hold for a system of dams that from the outset created significant problems for future generations to solve. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
From Full Pool to Dead Pool
Governing: “Dead Pool” took its title from the term used to describe a dammed lake that has fallen to the elevation of the dam’s outlet works, the level at which water can no longer flow downstream. Lake Mead, which hasn’t seen full pool since 1983, is now down 160 feet or so, and continues to fall. It’s shocking to think that this can be the case.
James Powell: Hoover Dam was a great human achievement, but you might say it was built on the false foundation that big dams are the long-term solution to water problems. One fact of these big dams on a muddy river like the Colorado is that the sediment gets trapped behind the dam. It gradually builds up until it covers the power generator, so they don’t produce power. Eventually the dam is not only not useful, but also actually a danger. This is in the future of all these big dams. It’s probably several hundred years away, and we have more immediate and different problems right now. But big dams are not a long-term solution to people’s power needs or their flood protection.
Governing: And there’s no dredging behind the dams, right? There’s no power equipment in the world that could dredge that amount of soil.
James Powell: If you just do the back of the envelope arithmetic, you see that it’s completely impossible to dredge these dams. If you wanted to dredge Lake Powell, just to keep up with the incoming silts, not even to get at what’s already there, you’d have to have one of the greatest and most massive human engineering and soil transportation operations ever. It’s just not feasible to do anything about it. These dams are going to silt up. Once that happens, you would not want to be downstream. They’re engineered to hold back a certain amount of water when the reservoir is full. But if instead of water it’s wet, muddy soil, you’re talking about a hugely greater weight pressing against that dam. They’re not meant to withstand that.
Doomed By Dams
I hate to sound doom and gloom, but I’m a scientist. I’m supposed to speak truth to power and interviewers and your audience. If we go back into the early part of the 20th century, there was a worldwide movement toward building these big dams. Every country in the world has done it. There’s a century’s worth of construction, and all of these dams are going to silt up at some point. Not all at once, but sequentially, serially. Then people of the future are going to have a huge problem on their hands. Floyd Dominy, the former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and the man responsible for the building of Glen Canyon Dam, once said, “Well, we’re going to let the people of the future worry about that.” The trouble is that he didn’t suggest any solutions.
Governing: The starkest point you made in “Dead Pool” was that we can have Lake Powell or Lake Mead, but we can’t have both. Explain.
James Powell: In my opinion, Lake Mead and Lake Powell will never be full again. There’s not enough water. If you project ahead, all the water is allocated right now. In fact, more water is allocated on paper than the river actually contains. And the evidence now shows, as I predicted in the book, that climate change is already lowering the flow of the Colorado River, and it’s going to lower it even more. Yet we’re still using every drop of Colorado River water and we’re certainly going to keep doing that as long as we can. I foresaw that both lake levels would drop.
These lakes now are at about 30 percent. What good do we get from Lake Powell? People use it for recreation, it produces power, but as the level of a lake falls, the head on the generators goes down, and they produce less and less power. I don’t know exactly how much power Lake Powell is producing, but less than it used to. If that water were simply sent down to Lake Mead, you’d have the same amount of water, but Lake Mead would be higher so there’d be a greater head on the turbines at Hoover Dam to generate more electricity. And you wouldn’t be cutting off water to Arizona, as was recently decided. Another benefit would be that you’d halve the evaporation. It makes great sense, but there’d be much political opposition to this. Still, we’re going to get to the point where something will have to be done.
The Law of the River
Governing: For the first time since the Colorado River Compact of 1922, we have rationed the delivery of water in the Colorado.
James Powell: Yes. And if you wanted one reason why, it’s because of climate change. The rainfall has fallen some, but the biggest reason is because everything is warmer. There’s more evaporation, and the drier soil soaks up moisture. That this rationing has had to happen now for the first time in a hundred years is sending us a warning. People on the river are now paying attention to this, the water managers, the Bureau of Reclamation. I’d be very surprised if any of them are denying the effects of climate change on the river. You can’t deny it. What to do about it is another very complicated issue.
Governing:The Compact itself created problems, because it gave both the upper and lower basins 7.5 million acre feet each, for a river that on average runs about 14 some million acre feet.
James Powell: Right, they overallocated the river. Meanwhile, we’ve had rampant population growth in the Southwest, in big cities like Phoenix and in little places like St. George, Utah, and everything in between. A crunch was bound to happen, but climate change is making it happen now. Getting out of this is going to be extremely difficult politically. Mark Twain said something like, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” I think we’re going to see people fighting over water.
Still, I believe that there is enough water for the next several decades if we manage it properly. Right now, about 70 percent of it is going to agriculture. Much of that is going to raise alfalfa, which is packed up and sent to China or the Emirates, to feed cattle. That would not be a very good answer to someone in Phoenix who’s thirsty or whose air conditioner isn’t working because there’s no power. We can’t just abandon the farmers, but there’s a lot we could do to help farmers get out of this problem. It’s all going to take political skill and leadership. If every state just tries to get its own, it’s going to be hopeless.
Governing: At the end of “Dead Pool,” you point out that the Compact of 1922 was fashioned by men who knew little of the river’s long-term flow and had no way to foresee the oncoming population explosion, much less global warming. And yet the renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact seems unlikely.
Where Will the Water Come From?
James Powell: It seems impossible. And yet something will have to be done, unless we expect states to go to war with each other. Arizona and California almost did at one point in the ’30s. People will do whatever they need to do to get water. Water is life, and there’s nothing people will not do, except maybe sit down and negotiate. But they’re going to have to do it. It’s going to take real political leadership and skill from people that I’m not sure are on the scene yet. But sooner or later, somebody is going to turn on a spigot in Phoenix, or somewhere in the Imperial Valley, or in East L.A., and no water’s going to come out. I just read about a town in Utah that said, “We can have no more housing development unless we know where the water’s coming from.” This is what’s going to happen all over the West.
Governing:Your book suggests that, because of the overallocation, there would be a Lake Mead/Lake Powell problem even without climate change. You can’t keep them both full?
James Powell: That’s right. First you have the overallocation, and then you have the growth model of the Southwest, which is, “We’re going to get bigger next year than we were this year.” And there’s the attraction that people have found in moving to the Southwest. It would have been a problem anyway, but without climate change, there might have been more time to work out a solution.
Lake Powell was unnecessary. It was put there, as I show in the book, for political reasons. It’s had some benefits, it’s great for recreation, it produces power and has some beautiful vistas. It’s also had some disadvantages. It drowned Glen Canyon. You could never take down Glen Canyon Dam, you could never dredge it. You’d have to somehow create spillways around it to get water down to Lake Mead.
Governing: Why can’t we breach Glen Canyon Dam?
James Powell: This is not my area of expertise, but I think taking that whole dam down would be an extremely difficult project. You’d have to do it very carefully because you wouldn’t want all that silt to come down the river at once. Again, I think you’d have to build some sort of channels around it so that the water could be let out a little at a time. I’m not even sure this is feasible. I know the people at the Glen Canyon Institute think it could be done. They’re the ones who came up with this one-dam idea some time ago, and they’ve done good work on it. If someone came along today and said, “We should build two dams, with each about 40 percent full,” you’d say, “Why should we do that?” We’d never do that now. But that’s hindsight, and here we are today with the problem. There’s not any real defense of keeping Lake Powell, other than avoiding a big political fight. The constituents and the legislators who represent the adjacent states are not going to be anxious to do away with it.
The Coming Climate Diaspora
Governing:You live in California. Californians have been living in a drought now for 20 years. There’ve been a couple of small respites, but it continues, with no end in sight.
James Powell: The only thing you can do is look back historically at tree rings to see how long previous droughts have lasted. Some of them lasted more than 20 years, and others lasted 40 or 50 years. We know climate change is now having something to do with this, though we don’t know exactly what. And local areas will have their own complex problems to deal with. It’ll filter down to small communities as well.
Governing: Can you envision a time in the life of your grandchildren when portions of California or Arizona will empty out, with people migrating to where there’s rain?
James Powell: Yes. I don’t mean to tout my own work, but I’ve written another book called “The 2084 Report.” It’s a novelistic vision of what life on the planet will be like in the mid-2080s. It’s not a happy read, but I wanted to try to get across to people what we’re really facing here. I’m already beginning to think about what my final words will be to my grandchildren about where they ought to live, and where they might not want to live.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.