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One of the Colorado River's most important dams could need upgrades to keep water flowing

Ted Wood/The Water Desk

As water levels in Lake Powell keep dropping, some say they could fall too low to pass through Glen Canyon Dam at sufficient levels. Activists are calling for changes to the dam's plumbing to keep enough water flowing to the states that depend on it downstream.

Activists in the Colorado River Basin are calling on the federal government to rework the plumbing inside Glen Canyon Dam.

River-related nonprofits in Utah and Nevada say water from Lake Powell may soon be unable to pass through rarely-used pipes in the dam at a sufficient rate, jeopardizing the flow of water to millions of people who depend on it in Nevada, Arizona and California.

Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, serves as a holding tank for the four states in the Upper Colorado River basin. Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico are legally required to send a specific amount of water downstream each year. They use Lake Powell to ensure they have enough stored water to do so, but more than two decades of drier than average conditions and steady demand in the Colorado River basin have caused the reservoir to plummet. 

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Activists say water levels are likely to dip down past already-historic lows. The problem lies in the size of water tubes within the Glen Canyon Dam. The lowest set – which would serve as the only exit route for water once levels fall past 3,430 feet in elevation – are not big enough to carry sufficient water for the Upper Basin states to satisfy their legal obligation. Lake Powell is currently at 3,536 feet.

“Are the plumbing limitations at Glen Canyon Dam going to affect the calculus of ongoing negotiations on the river?” asked Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute. “Is it going to limit our options going forward? And these questions are why we need to start seriously looking at alternative ways to operate Glen Canyon Dam.”

Balken and others – including representatives from the Utah Rivers Council and Great Basin Water Network – have proposed two solutions. The first would be to widen existing pipes or add new ones at the current level. The second proposes the construction of new tunnels at the base of the dam, allowing for the passage of water even if levels fall drastically lower.

River-focused activist groups shared this graphic showing the risks of dropping water levels in Lake Powell. They say the plumbing inside Glen Canyon Dam needs upgrades to keep water flowing at sufficient levels. (Courtesy of Utah Rivers Council)

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Either way, the groups are asking the U.S. Congress to provide emergency funding to the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, to study and implement changes to its plumbing. 

“It is time that we come clean with the American people about the problems with the antique plumbing inside Glen Canyon Dam,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “We just shoveled trillions of dollars from Congress into all kinds of stimulus and infrastructure spending. This problem should have been addressed five years ago.”

The Bureau of Reclamation was not able to provide comment by the time of publication.

The river advocates said the dam modifications are needed in light of new requests from the federal government to conserve a massive amount of water. In June, Reclamation told the seven states in the Colorado River basin to conserve between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water and gave them just two months to figure out where that water would come from, an unprecedented ask that sent shockwaves through the region. Since then, states have been posturing and questioning the federal government’s authority to force conservation for such a large quantity of water. 

“That is a seismic ask,” Balken said. “It is a huge amount of water to be reduced in such a short amount of time. And while we were looking at these plumbing issues at Glen Canyon Dam, we couldn't help but wonder if that announcement and that extremely short timeframe that was given, if that had something to do with these plumbing limitations that Glen Canyon Dam.”

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Climate scientists point to studies showing the region’s water supply likely to continue shrinking. Climate indicators show hotter and drier conditions are already here. Researchers say climate change – accelerated by human activity – is going to keep depleting the amount of water in the Colorado River. That poses an existential threat for the 40 million people and sprawling agricultural sector that depend on it. 

“The situation on the Colorado River is unprecedented,” Balken said. “We all know that, but it's not unpredicted. Climate science has been very clear, and it's clear that the river hydrology is most likely going to get worse. So we need to have every tool available to address this crisis. And if the problems at Glen Canyon Dam aren't addressed soon, it's going to be bad for all stakeholders.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.