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Lake Powell could hit near-record lows from drought

Posted at 10:13 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-19 14:30:18-04

In cruising Lake Powell this year, as people explore canyons and take in the beauty of the rock formations, they'll also see first-hand what extreme drought looks like.

They could come across previously submerged trees standing bare out-of-water. Or maybe they'll notice the "bathtub ring" lining the canyon walls, where the water used to sit. Some lucky groups might even find shipwrecked boats revealed on the shore.

Read: Shrinking shoreline exposes shipwreck at Lake Powell

But none of it is a good sign for the reservoir.

"I think it's a dire situation, because we've expected and come to use more water than is actually available in the Colorado River system," said David Tarboton, Director of the Utah State University Utah Water Research Laboratory.

Tarboton said we are currently in what is sometimes referred to as the millennium droughts, because the water average is 20 to 30 percent lower than before.

"You combine that with the increase in use, then you get the reservoirs going down," he explained. "So, both Lakes Powell and Mead,
which are the big reservoirs on the Colorado system, are at really low levels."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told FOX 13 that Lake Powell is projected to hit 31 percent capacity this year, and could break records from previous years.

Those low levels, Tarboton indicated, mean water managers must decide where that water goes-- and how much.

He said that management of the Colorado River is complicated, because each of the states that receives the water must get a certain amount by law.

"As a society we're going to have to make decisions about who gets the water, and whether we need to sort of prioritize amongst the uses," Tarboton said.

Lake Powell sends water down the Colorado River and on to Lake Mead. From there, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says, the system provides water for 41 million people in the seven Basin states-- Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.

But most of the water doesn't go to homes, Tarboton explained.

"About 60 to 70 percent of the water consumption is from agriculture," he said.

The remaining, smaller fraction is municipal and household use, he continued, and conservation on that end would not make a huge dent in things.

"Really, we have to come to grips with agricultural water use," he said.

Utah has many other reservoirs it relies on for water. While others in the state are low, the Division of Water Resources said those reservoirs look nothing like Lake Powell.

"It's taken several years for Lake Powell to get that low," said Laura Haskell, Drought Coordinator at the Division of Water Resources.

Still, she said reservoirs are only 68 to 69 percent full right now, when they were sitting at 83 percent this time last year.

"We still want to be cautious, because we don't know how long this dry situation is going to last, or if it's going to be as hot as it was last year-- which was record hot," Haskell said.

Cautious, Haskell said, to make the water in our reservoirs last as long as possible.

"As researchers we try and look at the data and say what will happen if you do this or if you do that, but ultimately it comes down to the governing system to prioritize who is going to get the water," Tarboton said, adding, "But it's important to recognize the amount of water that we have. And getting that reality through is sometimes challenging."

The Water Desk contributed to this report.