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Hoover And Glen Canyon Dams Are Low On Water, Threatening Power Production


The water levels behind the Colorado River's biggest dams are at record lows, and that means the historic drought in Western states will probably start showing up in people's energy bills because those dams can't produce as much electricity. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC has more.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Standing at the base of Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, the Colorado River flows out of Lake Powell cold and clear. On the canyon walls, moss grows where water from behind the dams seeps slowly through the red sandstone, and the air buzzes with electricity.

BOB MARTIN: If money had a sound, this would be it.

RUNYON: Bob Martin runs the dam for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. When heat waves scorch the West, as they have this year, Martin says the dam can release more water to meet the ramped-up energy demands in places like Colorado Springs, Mesa, Ariz., and the Navajo Nation.

MARTIN: You can hear the electricity. It's keeping the lights on at businesses, the AC on at your home.

RUNYON: Lake Powell is the nation's second largest reservoir. Later this month, it's projected to hit its lowest point since it first filled in the 1960s. Warming temperatures from climate change and the West's inability to conserve are to blame. Inside the dam, water moves through generators to churn out power for 5 million people in seven Western states. As the lake declines, its power production does, too, because there's less water pressure to drive the turbines, not enough hydraulic head, Martin says. The dam's capacity has dropped about 20% since the year 2000.

MARTIN: It's not sustainable to continue to release that volume of water when you have not that much coming in.

CLAYTON PALMER: It's a difficult conversation in the sense that all we have to deliver is bad news.

RUNYON: Clayton Palmer is with the Western Area Power Administration, or WAPA, which distributes the dam's power. He says with the lake on the decline, this year his agency will have to purchase millions of dollars in extra electrical power on the open market to fulfill their contracts.

PALMER: Conversations with our customers have been centered on how much less should you deliver or how much more should you raise your price.

RUNYON: WAPA has already started the process to raise its rates by 14% for at least the next two years. The Colorado River's dams are still generating hydropower. What's uncertain is what another year as dry as this one could do to power production in the watershed.

ERIC KUHN: I think it's been described as a slow-moving train wreck...

RUNYON: Eric Kuhn is the former general manager of the Colorado River District.

KUHN: ...Because it's taken us 22 years to go from full to where we are.

RUNYON: Kuhn says it takes a series of back-to-back dry years to put the river's power production in jeopardy. Lake Powell has now seen two in a row. One more could set in motion a complete loss of hydropower at the reservoir. None of this should come as a surprise, says Eric Balken of the Utah-based environmental group the Glen Canyon Institute.

ERIC BALKEN: I think for a lot of people, the writing's on the wall.

RUNYON: Balken's group advocates drawing down Lake Powell on purpose, letting its water flow downstream to fill Lake Mead. Environmentalists have called for draining the lake for decades. They see its dam as a symbol of the West's water excesses. Doing so would also, of course, mean removing a major source of hydroelectricity.

BALKEN: Lake Powell, we knew in the '80s and '90s, probably isn't coming back. And as far as the climate data goes, you don't have to be a mathematician to see the trend line.

RUNYON: Which shows temperatures likely to keep rising, putting strains on not just the region's water supply but its energy grid, too.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUDASAI'S "ATTACHED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.