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Glen Canyon's generating days are numbered

Glen Canyon Dam, substation (left) and bridge (in front of the dam) as seen from the south, near Page, Arizona.
Adbar, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Glen Canyon Dam, substation (left) and bridge (in front of the dam) as seen from the south, near Page, Arizona.

This article was originally published in The Land Desk.

THE NEWS: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s latest five-year projections for the Colorado River system paint a bleak picture, giving Lake Powell’s levels a 34 percent chance of falling below the minimum power pool in 2023, meaning Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.

THE CONTEXT: The Bureau charted a variety of scenarios using the newish “stress test” hydrology, which is based on 1988-2019 natural flows—as opposed to going back to 1906, when flows were more abundant—to better incorporate the effects of climate change. But some Colorado River experts believe even that’s not “stressful” enough, and that basing the modeling on the most recent 22 years of flows would produce a more accurate, and dire, worst-case projection.

But even using the more optimistic modeling Lake Powell almost certainly will never fill back up again and will, instead, most likely continue to shrink. Hydrologists give it a one-in-three chance of dropping another 56 feet or more over the next couple of years. The “bathtub ring” lining the sandstone shores of the reservoir, now 160 feet high, would grow to more than 200 feet, silt-filled canyon gems would be revealed, and boating would become less and less feasible. Most significantly, hydropower production would wane before coming to an abrupt halt.

That’s a big deal. Glen Canyon Dam may be an abomination, but it nevertheless is an important component of the Southwestern electricity grid. It generates enough juice to keep the air conditioners humming and the lights on for hundreds of thousands of homes. And output can be ramped up and down very quickly, making it a useful tool for smoothing out fluctuations in solar and wind output or supplying the big spikes in power demand that occur on hot afternoons. While the generation capacity could be replaced by a collection of large solar and wind facilities, the battery-like capabilities of a large hydroelectric plant are unmatched. And until adequate wind, solar, and storage capacity is in place, grid operators will likely turn to natural gas-fired generation to make up for lost hydropower, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s exactly what’s happening this summer, as drought and warming temperatures have diminished reservoirs across the West, thereby depleting hydropower generation. As reservoir levels drop, so too does generating capacity: more water must be run through the turbines to generate the same amount of electricity. In California, where extreme heat has upped electricity demand, hydropower generation is down by a whopping 49 percent compared to last year. In response, natural gas generation has been ramped up enough to send demand—and prices—for the fuel upward, prompting some utilities to turn to more affordable and even dirtier coal to generate power.

The power grid, it seems, has a serious fossil fuel problem and the loss of hydropower generation threatens to make it worse. The timing of Glen Canyon power plant’s projected demise compounds the situation, since it would coincide with the loss of another huge generator on the Western Grid: Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, slated to shut down in 2024-25.

Still, any attempts to save Lake Powell in order to preserve hydropower capacity will be futile. Instead we must accept that Lake Powell’s days are numbered and quickly and adequately prepare the grid for a future without Glen Canyon Dam by reducing demand, increasing efficiency, blanketing rooftops and brownfields with solar panels and batteries, building utility scale solar and wind facilities in appropriate places, and reconfiguring the grid to better move clean energy across the region.

3.9 million megawatt hours: Amount of power Glen Canyon Dam generated in 2019, enough to power some 366,000 households for a year.

1.75 million tons: Amount of carbon dioxide that would be emitted from a natural gas power plant generating that same amount of electricity.

861,867: Amount of power generated in 2019 by the Solar Star 1 photovoltaic installation in Kern County, California, one of the largest solar power facilities in the United States.

In case you wondering what is making the Lake Powell-shrinking extreme heat and drought—or aridification, if you prefer—so severe, the National Oceanic and Atmosphereic Administration has an answer: human-caused climate change. The federal agency released a report this month running through the impacts and causes of the 2020-21 Southwest U.S. drought.

The lack of precipitation, the researchers conclude, may have been a natural, random occurrence. But the warm temperatures that accompanied the dryness is the result of climate change, and “human-caused warming helped ensure that below-normal precipitation, even if only due to unlucky weather, would make drought more likely.”

Even if we do get a couple of good snow years in the near future, it won’t necessarily end the drought, the researchers say, so long as warming continues:

The warm temperatures that helped to make this drought so intense and widespread will continue (and increase) until stringent climate mitigation is pursued and regional warming trends are reversed. As such, continued warming of the U.S. Southwest due to greenhouse gas emissions will make even randomly occurring seasons of average- to below-average precipitation a potential drought trigger, and intensify droughts beyond what would be expected from rainfall or snowpack deficits alone.

And in case you think we’re going to get through the dry times by asking folks to conserve, think again. Ian James of the Los Angeles Times reports that California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pleas to his constituents to use less water fell on deaf ears. Instead of cutting use by 15 percent, residents of Los Angeles and San Diego actually guzzled more water.

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KSUT publishes selected articles from The Land Desk, a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson. The Land Desk explores news from the Four Corners, Colorado Plateau, and Native and Indigenous lands. Jonathan is a longtime Four Corners-based journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and his new book, Sagebrush Empire.

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