What Changes When We Hit 3,525?

Ed_on_WD

Well-Known Member
Well folks, today the Water Data page posted yesterday's lake level as 3,525.08, so that means that today's reading is going to break into the range of 3,524 and change. The safety margin has now been breached.

This is the point at which the engineers at the dam start sweating about damage to the machinery caused by air being sucked into the turbines when the generators are running at maximum capacity.

Crossing this barrier won't immediately change any plans for launch ramp operations, but now the Bureau of Reclamation has to make decisions that will affect the operation of the western electrical grid and water delivery of the Colorado River system as a whole. Spring runoff is not going to happen soon enough to allow further postponement of some hard choices.

Will the BOR reduce flow through Glen Canyon Dam, to protect the physical power plant, leading to Lake Mead hitting a lake level of 1,050, which will set off a new round of cutbacks in water delivery to customers downstream? Will lakes upstream of Powell release larger amounts to forestall these problems? Hard choices are upon us.

The next Low Water Update on Thursday 3/17 might be an interesting read.
 

Colorado Expat

Well-Known Member
Well folks, today the Water Data page posted yesterday's lake level as 3,525.08, so that means that today's reading is going to break into the range of 3,524 and change. The safety margin has now been breached.

This is the point at which the engineers at the dam start sweating about damage to the machinery caused by air being sucked into the turbines when the generators are running at maximum capacity.

Crossing this barrier won't immediately change any plans for launch ramp operations, but now the Bureau of Reclamation has to make decisions that will affect the operation of the western electrical grid and water delivery of the Colorado River system as a whole. Spring runoff is not going to happen soon enough to allow further postponement of some hard choices.

Will the BOR reduce flow through Glen Canyon Dam, to protect the physical power plant, leading to Lake Mead hitting a lake level of 1,050, which will set off a new round of cutbacks in water delivery to customers downstream? Will lakes upstream of Powell release larger amounts to forestall these problems? Hard choices are upon us.

The next Low Water Update on Thursday 3/17 might be an interesting read.
The information presented on the Water Data page actually lags several days behind the true water level. According to the USGS gauge at the dam, the surface elevation has been below 3525 since this past Saturday. Nothing dramatic happened as a result - the lake will just keep on going down for at least another month or two. With snowpack at 95 percent, depleted upstream reservoirs that need some replenishment, and a modest but not insignificant soil moisture deficit to compensate for, there will be a small early summer bump, then the lake will just continue dropping more. There is simply not enough water in the system for any other outcome.
 

BartJ

Active Member
It's 3524.9, and nothing happened yet. I know this is serious, but so far it's kind of like Y2K.
 

SDuncan

Active Member
It's 3524.9, and nothing happened yet. I know this is serious, but so far it's kind of like Y2K.
Well, I know most people generally tend to think of Y2K as the "big deal that turned out to be nothing", but trust me, as an IT professional who worked on it, it was only not a disaster because everyone in both the public and private sectors knew it was coming and took it very seriously. A huge amount of work occurred behind the scenes to ensure that it actually did "turn out to be nothing".

Y2K might have been unique among potential disasters in that everyone knew exactly what the issue was, when it would occur, and generally how to fix it, which is quite unlike most disasters. So all it really took was the commitment to put in the dollars and man hours to make the fixes happen, but don't for a second underestimate the potential that was there.
 

Ed_on_WD

Well-Known Member
Y2K might have been unique among potential disasters in that everyone knew exactly what the issue was, when it would occur, and generally how to fix it, which is quite unlike most disasters.
And so it is with Lake Powell's water level problem. 3,525 was the Bureau of Reclamations own self declared "red line." They defined what the issue was (water level low enough to risk physical damage to the Glen Canyon Dam turbines), when it would occur (lake level 3,525), and generally how to fix it (several options, some of them mutually exclusive, needing to be picked from).

So, pull up a chair. Lake Mead is dropping over a foot per week, and they are less than 15 feet away from hitting a lake level of 1,050, which will drive cutbacks for water customers downstream. If the BOR cuts releases from Lake Powell to protect power generation from Glen Canyon, then Lake Mead hits 1,050 sooner. The CAP and several SoCal water districts would feel the hurt. If BOR acts to increase Lake Powell releases to slow the drop at Lake Mead, then there is reduced electrical generation from Glen Canyon Dam over the long term and the Bullfrog North Ramp could become part of a newly exposed path for vehicles to drive from one side of Bullfrog Bay (or would it be called Bullfrog Canyon at that point?) to the other before the runoff hits.

The spring runoff can't come soon enough. Let's see what, if anything, gets announced in Mary Plumb's Low Water Update tomorrow, Thursday March 17, 2022.
 
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Firegurue

Member
This has been an issue of mismanagement of the lake for years! The drought has played its part, but the lake has been dropping since it reached full pool in 1984. This is a political issue that non of us will resolve, and the water consumption will keep increasing and the lake will be back to a river in the near future (look at the history). The lake will not see a significant increase this year, just like last year. The upper basin lakes were lowered to help Powell and Mead, and are now lower than they have been in years. Start managing the water storage and put restrictions on those down stream, the population and water demand isn't going down its only increasing at alarming rates! The BOR is a joke the way the water storage is being mismanaged!
 

Ed_on_WD

Well-Known Member
The BOR is operating under unsustainable guidlines, some of which were written over 100 years ago. I understand that senior water rights holders are screaming "I want what's mine!", but those contracts were written in a different hydrologic era.

There are golf courses (yes, more than one!) around Palm Springs that use over 1 million gallons of water PER DAY to keep their fairways green! Their lawyers may have finagled the legal access to that water, but that doesn't make it right to use that resource in that way. Agricultural use I can understand, but to waste that water on LANDSCAPING should be a criminal offense. Maybe they are using treated sewage, but it ultimately came from the Colorado River, and that treated water should be used on farms. These are the sorts of changes that need to be made.
 

Firegurue

Member
Until something drastically changes and they starting operating off current data, the lakes will be a memory of the past! Change has to happen all the way around in order to facilitate water storage. It won't be an issue until its gone, then its too late.
 

SDuncan

Active Member
Ed, judging by lakemead.water-data.com, late in February Mead's decline accelerated significantly, and it's now dropping a foot every five days. Any idea what's behind that?

I know the Powell water database doesn't exactly align with the USGS gauge at the GCD, but the gauge is real-time and the lake goes slightly up and down over short time scales against the longer term decline, so I'm going to assume the info in databases is mostly accurate.
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
This has been an issue of mismanagement of the lake for years! The drought has played its part, but the lake has been dropping since it reached full pool in 1984. This is a political issue that non of us will resolve, and the water consumption will keep increasing and the lake will be back to a river in the near future (look at the history). The lake will not see a significant increase this year, just like last year. The upper basin lakes were lowered to help Powell and Mead, and are now lower than they have been in years. Start managing the water storage and put restrictions on those down stream, the population and water demand isn't going down its only increasing at alarming rates! The BOR is a joke the way the water storage is being mismanaged!
Well it's definitely a tough situation, but there's really only so much BOR can do when you're dealing with the kind of drought the region is facing. To clarify a few things:

1. After reaching full pool in 1980, Lake Powell was effectively full from 1980-86 or so, with a few dips here and there. An extended drought in the late 80s/early 90s dropped the lake to about as low as 3612 in the winter of 1991/92, but the lake filled again--effectively full again from 1997-2000. The huge drought of 2000-04 got the lake started on a larger decline, hitting bottom in April 2005 at 3555.... but then in 2011 it was as high as 3661. So it's not accurate to say the lake has been dropping since 1984.

2. Lower Basin water consumption from the Colorado River has actually been dropping since 2000, not rising. It had climbed quite a bit from 1980-2000 as the lakes were full and restrictions seemed unnecessary, owing largely to overuse in California and growth in Arizona. But when the 2000-04 drought hit, those states changed their management strategies, particularly CA. Here's the combined water use of CA/AZ/NV over the past few decades (figures from BOR):

1980 - 6.0 maf
1990 - 7.7 maf
2000 - 8.3 maf
2010 - 7.4 maf
2020 - 6.8 maf

...and remember, those three states are collectively allocated 7.5 maf...

3. In terms of managing Mead and Powell, you really have to look at them as one unit. Their collective storage capacity is about 50.2 maf. Since 1980, the amount in two reservoirs combined (except for a brief period in the mid-90s) has been steadily dropping. From 1980-2000, it was mostly because Lower Basin water consumption was up. But since then, Lower Basin water use has been down, and yet the lakes continue to generally drop. There's just not enough snowpack. Looking back, here's the average collective percentage full of the two lakes combined as a function of theoretical capacity:

1980 - 90%
1990 - 75%
2000 - 87%
2010 - 51%
2020 - 45%

...and today, we're at 29% of combined capacity. As an aside, the current combined storage of 14.7 maf is less than any time since Lake Powell has existed. You have to go back to 1956, when there was no Lake Powell, and Lake Mead held only about 12.2 maf to find a time when Colorado River storage was less than it is now. (In the 1940s and early 1950s, Mead typically was over 20 maf.)

4. The question was raised about "why is Mead dropping so fast right now?" Well, that's largely a function of current BOR protocol to hold back releases from Powell this year--the 7.48 maf release figure (as opposed to the more usual 8.23 or even 9.0) is being felt downstream. It may not seem like that's what's happening, but it is. Consider this: In a more typical spring, about 11-12,000 cfs/day is released from Powell. Right now, it's more like 9,500 cfs. The effects are felt downstream. At Mead, you'd normally have inflow of about 11,500 cfs right now, but it's closer to 9-10,000. Makes a big difference there, and when you combine that with the normal Mead outflows of 15-16,000 cfs to meet downstream user obligations, Mead drops. Simple as that.

So what's the solution? Well, sure, better water conservation practices help--pretty tight restrictions are already in place in CA already, for example. All states committing to using less from the river, yes, and that's the focus of current discussions in reworking the 1922 Compact. But in the end, the most effective solution? More snow.

In any case, BOR can't control any of those things...
 
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Colorado Expat

Well-Known Member
The new 24-month study for March 2022 was just released by BOR, and the official projections at this point are:

1) The lake will fall to 3520 by April of this year.
2) The lake will rise with spring runoff to 3543 by June of this year.
3) The lake will steadily decline after that to a new low of 3506 by March 2023.

Recall that a recent Utah State University indicated that due to inherent statistical biases, the BOR's 24-month studies tend to overestimate future lake levels.

In addition, snowfall accumulation in the Upper Basin has been less than stellar so far in March, so my guess is that the numbers above represent a best case scenario.

It seems likely at this point that hydropower generation will be compromised by 2023.
 

lakepowellnut

Well-Known Member
Here’s my two cents…farmers aren’t the issue per se, but if we follow the water use and money that buys the geopolitical power, we’ll have a better understanding on who to fight. Water grows food for animals and vegetables, so farmers are in the clear. On the other hand, Southern California water use is clearly used for urban use more than agriculture.

 

Ed_on_WD

Well-Known Member
At 3,506 by March of 2023, will there even be marinas at mid lake or even Wahweap?

Access at Antelope might be possible, but it would have to resemble something like the temporary freight elevator on a high rise construction project.
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
Here’s my two cents…farmers aren’t the issue per se, but if we follow the water use and money that buys the geopolitical power, we’ll have a better understanding on who to fight. Water grows food for animals and vegetables, so farmers are in the clear. On the other hand, Southern California water use is clearly used for urban use more than agriculture.

On the issue of urban vs. ag water use in CA, these are figures from the BOR 2020 report:

Total 2020 CA Colorado River water use (after return flow): 4.06 maf

Of that total, these were the major users (all figures are after return flow is considered):

Imperial Irrigation District - 2.4 maf
MWD of So Cal - 0.8 maf
Palo Verde Irrig Dist - 0.35 maf
Coachella Valley Water District - 0.35 maf
All tribes - 0.08 maf

The only major urban use of river water is from MWD, with the cities of Needles and Winterhaven using a drop in the bucket. In other words, agriculture consumes nearly 80% of the CA share of water... which is a similar pattern to all water use elsewhere in CA...

In the report you linked to, it cites that the breakdown of water use in CA is:

50% environmental
40% agricultural
10% urban

That's a little misleading, since "environmental" basically means "water not used"... so when you factor that out, it's...

80% agricultural
20% urban
 

Colorado Expat

Well-Known Member
Not to put too fine a point on it, but environmental flows are not really "water not used" since they are definitely used to support native Colorado River fishes found nowhere else on the planet, a wide array of waterfowl and other wildlife, the greater Grand Canyon and Lower Colorado River ecosystems, and recreational activities downstream of Lake Mead. To some extent, such use is also mandated under species recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act.

So in the end, about half the water goes to keeping the Colorado as some semblance of a functional river, which is a perfectly reasonable use.
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
Not to put too fine a point on it, but environmental flows are not really "water not used" since they are definitely used to support native Colorado River fishes found nowhere else on the planet, a wide array of waterfowl and other wildlife, the greater Grand Canyon and Lower Colorado River ecosystems, and recreational activities downstream of Lake Mead. To some extent, such use is also mandated under species recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act.

So in the end, about half the water goes to keeping the Colorado as some semblance of a functional river, which is a perfectly reasonable use.
Fair enough. Good clarification. Should have said "water not used for human consumptive purposes"... That said, the report was referring to all water use in CA, not specific to Colorado River water... I'd guess that "environmental use" of Colorado River water is much less than 50%, since almost none of it reaches the Sea of Cortez...
 
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