Could Draining Lake Powell Save Lake Mead?

Dams were once thought to be the answer to Western water issues, but today their value has come into question.

They’re meant to control river flow, generate power and stockpile water, and they do, though less efficiently than we intended. They lose massive amounts of water to evaporation and leaks, they disrupt the environment and often leave taxpayers in debt.

The issue is close to home.

Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam is 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas. There’s talk of decommissioning it and draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which hit a historic low last week.

What’s the likelihood of this happening, and a bigger question: Have dams run their course? 

Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for ProPublica. He recently wrote an article entitled "Drought be Dammed" exploring that possibility.

He told KNPR's State of Nevada that the Glen Canyon Institute, an environmental advocacy group, wants to eliminate the dam and restore Glen Canyon, and now it has a "pragmatic proposal" to do it. 

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“The inefficiencies that are created by these giant reservoirs — both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and Lake Powell in particular — could be minimized if you combine the two reservoirs,” Lustgarten said, explaining the group's position. 

The "inefficiencies" include evaporation and leakage. The estimated the water savings would be enough to provide water for about 9 million people, he said. 

The plan would open the gates at Glen Canyon Dam, draining Lake Powell and allowing its water to flow down river to Lake Mead. Besides saving water from evaporation and seepage, the plan would fill Lake Mead back up. 

“And it would consolidate the water in Lake Mead that would allow the Hoover Dam to generate more power than it is currently able to, as well,” Lustgarten said.

As for the power generated by Glen Canyon Dam, advocates say it would only raise power rates in the West by a few cents if the dam was decommissioned. It would hurt the Department of Defense and some Native American tribes more, Lustgarten said. 

For all the advantages that supporters of the idea lay out, those who manage water along the Colorado River are unlikely to support it, Lustgarten said.

He explained that when the dam was built in the 1950s it was designed to preserve the water rights of the states in the upper Colorado River basin.

“The Glen Canyon Dam is an upper basin piece of infrastructure to impound their water,” he said, “Those upper basin states, of course, are concerned that if you got rid of Glen Canyon dam that they would lose control over their water. That they wouldn’t have a way to use what isn’t used by the lower basin states.”

Lustgarten said to solve the problem Lake Mead would have to be seen as the holding pond for all states along the Colorado River, not just the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California.

The issue of state water rights could be the biggest stumbling block to decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam, Lustgarten said. Western states last negotiated water rights in 1922, and water authorities today want to avoid arduous renegotiations.

Dams in California and the Pacific Northwest have were decommissioned in 2015, but Lustgarten said different circumstances exist along the Colorado River.

“The same rules don’t apply to the dams along the Colorado River,” he said. “What you have on the Colorado River is as system of many dams and hydroelectric power generation that might exceed what the amount of water in the river is capable of generating. So you have too many facilities trying to eke out power from too little water.”

Besides power generation, another problem on the river is water use.

Lustgarten said based on current water use, weather and climate change trends Lake Mead could hit a crisis point in a year and half.

At that point, the federal government would step in and force states using Lake Mead to cut back on allocations of water. 

It is simple math: Water use is out pacing water in the river.

“The levels will continue to drop until the use matches what is actually available in the natural system,” Lustgarten said.

Which is why those who support decommissioning Glen Canyon dam say their plan would work. By eliminating the inefficiency up river and better conservation measures everywhere, the Colorado River would keep flowing.

“The amount of water in Lake Mead is essentially determined by the amount of water let out of Lake Powell,” Lustgarten said. 


Abrham Lustgarten, reporter, ProPublica

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