Colorado River Dams Could Stop Producing Hydropower

Officials are releasing water from upstream reservoirs as water levels in the river's major reservoirs fall to historic lows.

July 22, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Glen Canyon Dam

NaughtyNut / Shutterstock

As a historic drought continues into its third decade, the hydroelectric dams along the Colorado River will start seeing less electricity production, potentially causing electricity costs to rise across the West, writes Luke Runyon. "Lake Powell is the nation’s second largest reservoir," producing power for 5 million people. "Later in July it’s projected to hit its lowest point since it first filled in the 1960s, set to drop below its previous low set in 2005." If water levels continue to drop, "[h]ydropower production might become unfeasible at elevations above 3,490 feet due to turbine cavitation, when small air bubbles form and cause damage to the machine’s inner workings."

"The declining water levels have sent those who market and distribute Colorado River basin hydropower to their customers to figure out how to make up the energy deficit." Clayton Palmer with the Western Area Power Administration, which distributes power produced at Glen Canyon Dam, "said this year his agency will have to purchase millions of dollars in extra electrical power on the open market to fulfill their contracts."

On July 19, "[f]ederal officials laid out details of how reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell will release water in an attempt to keep producing hydropower," but the planned releases from upstream reservoirs amount to a short-term fix. "There comes a point where we can't engineer our way out of this," said Christopher Cutler, water and power services manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. "If the basin’s dry conditions continue into 2022, the situation could become more dire."

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