The Lake Powell water elevation is currently as 3,594 feet, which is 33 feet lower than it was this time last year. The last time the lake was this low in September was in 2013 when it dropped to 3,590 feet.
The low, and still dropping, water level is causing a few complications throughout Lake Powell.
It has made navigating the Castle Rock Cut a tricky endeavor. The water level is only eight to ten feet deep at its shallowest point. Last week, park service employees placed warning buoys along the length of the Cut that read “SHALLOW WATER – CROSS AT OWN RISK”.
The Cut is a convenient shortcut for boaters traveling from Wahweap Bay to Warm Creek Bay that can shorten an uplake trip by about an hour. The minimum usable elevation to use the Castle Rock cut is 3,580 feet, just 14 feet below its current level.
And as of Sept. 13 the west half of the Antelope Point launch ramp was closed due to a severe drop off there, which has been exposed due to the receding water.
But the water mark Arizonan’s should be watching the closest is the elevation of Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam. If the water level drops below 1,075 feet above sea level the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) will declare a Tier 1 water shortage and that will trigger a sharp decline in the amount of water available to Arizona.
Under a Tier 1 water shortage declaration, when Lake Mead drops below an elevation of 1,075 feet, Arizona will forfeit to California 250,000 acre feet of water annually. Last August the Bureau of Reclamation released its annual water forecast which said there’s a 90 percent probability that Lake Mead will drop below the 1,075 elevation line by Dec. 2019.
So, why does Arizona forfeit that water to California?
During the 1922 Colorado River Compact the water in the Colorado River was divided among Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. In the Compact it was ruled that the three lower basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – would receive 7.5 million acre feet of water annually, but it wasn’t determined how much each state would receive.
The issue was revisited in 1928 during the Boulder Canyon Project Act as part of the commission to construct the Hoover Dam, at which time it was ruled that Arizona would get 2.8 million acre feet, California would get 4.4 million acre feet and Nevada would get 300,000 acre feet.
The agreement that Arizona would forfeit 250,000 acre feet to California if Lake Mead dropped below 1,075 feet was made by the Supreme Court as part of the negotiations for the Central Arizona Project.
In an agreement that seems counterintuitive to Arizonans, they will forfeit more and more water, the lower Lake Mead becomes. If the Lake Mead elevation drops to 1,050 Arizona must give up 400,000 acre feet. If the elevation drops below 1,025 Arizona must forfeit 480,000 acre feet to California.
The Lake Powell Pipeline
The likelihood of Lake Mead dropping below the critical threshold will increase if the Lake Powell Pipeline is constructed, and last week the Washington County Water Conservancy District announced it still plans to pursue the pipeline’s construction.
The Lake Powell Pipeline was temporarily delayed last Thursday when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has been the main regulatory agency for the pipeline since the projects was first announced, ruled to reduce its role in permitting the Lake Powell Pipeline.
FERC clarified Thursday that it was not the right agency to permit a water diversion of the Colorado River, as it is an energy regulatory agency, not a water regulatory agency.
After FERC’s announcement last week, the Washington County Water Conservancy District said it still plans to proceed with construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline, though FERC’s announcement will delay the project, likely by several years.
If built, the Lake Powell Pipeline will transport 77 million gallons (86,000 acre feet) of water a day to Washington County, Utah where it will be deposited in Sand Hollow Reservoir.
Since 1990, Washington County’s population has more than tripled from 165,000 residents, many of them living in St. George and its rapidly growing suburbs. Demographers project that 400,000 more people could arrive by 2060.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District has been tasked with supplying the water needs of the rapidly growing community and they see the Lake Powell Pipeline as the most efficient way to meet their future water needs.
Right now, all of Washington County’s water comes from the Virgin River, and the Washington County Water Conservancy District sees the Lake Powell Pipeline as a means to diversify their water resources.
The pipeline’s intake will be located 1,200 feet upstream of the Glen Canyon Dam. A 69-inch diameter pipeline will carry the water 140 miles to Washington County. Five pumping stations will first push the water 2,000 feet uphill as its routed into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Some of the energy needed to pump the water uphill will be recaptured as the water will pass through six turbine stations as it falls downhill to Sand Hollow Reservoir.
The project is estimated to cost between $1.4 to $1.8 billion. Utah has already spent $33 million conducting a feasibility study.
The Lake Powell Pipeline has numerous opponents, one of which is the Utah River Council which argues that Washington County is being grossly inefficient with its water use.
According to the Utah River Council St. George uses an average of 325 gallons of water per person per day for which they pay $1.52 per gallon. By comparison residents of Tucson, Ariz. use an average of 120 per person per day and they pay $17 per gallon. Residents of Las Vegas pay close to $5 per gallon. The national average water use per person per day is 130 gallons per person.
“Utah is just pretending that the other states downsteam that rely on water from the Colorado don’t even exist,” said Nick Schou, Conservation Director with the Utah Rivers Council. “When the people downstream are banking water and making cut backs and forming drought contingency plans, Utah is planning one of the biggest water grabs, unnecessarily so, when other states are about to be forced out of water. It would be one thing if people in Washington county actually needed the water, but they don’t.
“This really should be a minute when they reflect about why they’re pursuing this, when instead they should be pursuing less expensive means of getting water.”
The Lake Powell Pipeline is in its 12th year of progress, and Utah has already spent $33 million on it. With FERC’s announcement last week that it will no longer be the primary regulating agency will delay the project further. If the pipeline construction is approved its estimated to cost between $1.3 to $1.8 billion to build.
If completed Utah has stated it plans to draw 83,000 acre feet of water per year from Lake Powell, which, if Lake Mead hasn’t dropped below the 1,075 mark, may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.