What if there’s a bad snow year?
By Allen Best, Aspen Journalism
Skimpy-clothed people splashing amid the red sandstone canyons of Utah define our images of Lake Powell. But six months ago, engineers and water officials from the seven states of the Colorado River Basin quietly met in Santa Fe to consider a more serious possibility: Continued drought could leave too little water in the reservoir for the eight giant turbines in Glen Canyon Dam to produce electricity.
The turbines can produce great amounts of electricity, 1,320 megawatts at full throttle, or roughly twice as much as the Cherokee power plants north of downtown Denver. In practice, the volume runs half that. Most rural electrical cooperatives in the Rocky Mountains states buy power from Glen Canyon through their wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as does Xcel Energy.
The average $150 million in revenues from this power generation are a federal cash cow. The money paid for construction of Glen Canyon and other dams authorized by Congress in 1958, but also funds salinity control such as in the Paradox Valley west of Telluride and the endangered fish recovery program, including the 15-mile segment of the Colorado River from Palisade into Grand Junction.
What if the Colorado River Basin has another bum year for snow? Inflows into Lake Powell during the last two years were 25 percent and then 47 percent as compared to the rolling 30-year average. If the years 2001-2003 were about as bad, here’s the difference: in 1999, Lake Powell was full. In recent years, despite a few big snow years, the reservoir has often displayed big “bathtub rings.” Right now, it’s 43 percent of capacity. Drought has been our more steady companion of the 21st century.
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