Depleted Colorado River, faulty plumbing drive projected water cutbacks

·3 min read

Aug. 4—Climate change and growing demand for water in the West have combined to deplete the Colorado River to a historic low, and now a more mundane glitch is compounding the supply problem: faulty plumbing.

Antiquated pipes will impede efforts to channel water through the Glen Canyon Dam and to the three lower basin states of Nevada, Colorado and California as reservoir levels drop to critical lows — possibly putting New Mexico and its upper basin partners in a legal bind, according to a coalition of nonprofit groups.

Lake Powell is on the verge of falling below the minimum water level — 3,490 feet — needed to power turbines that generate electricity for 5 million homes, and when that happens it must funnel water through a different set of aging pipes that are unable to meet the task, the coalition's representatives told reporters Wednesday at an online news conference.

That plumbing system must be overhauled to funnel enough water to the river and then downstream to meet the supply obligations for the lower basin states and Mexico under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, they said.

"This problem should have been addressed five years ago," said Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. "It's time we come clean with the American people about the antique plumbing problems inside Glen Canyon Dam."

Lake Powell's falling levels are exposing the infrastructure flaws as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is calling for the seven Western states, including New Mexico, to draft plans by mid-August to cut their use of water in the Colorado River Basin by a combined 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water to supply two or three U.S. households for a year.

Frankel said the cuts the Reclamation Bureau is requesting represent about a third of the river's flow.

The Colorado River is flowing at a historic low amid a 22-year megadrought. Climate change is compounding the problem with hotter, drier weather that reduces snowpack runoff and increases evaporation.

The main options for upgrading the dam's plumbing are to retrofit existing pipes or add ones that bypass the hydro-generators, Frankel said, displaying diagrams of the proposed work.

At the same time, the Reclamation Bureau has made optimistic projections about water flows that aren't in line with the reality of Lake Powell dipping critically low, said Nick Halberg, the council's policy analyst.

"We can't just say everything is rosy moving forward and Lake Powell is never going to fall down to these low levels," Halberg said.

Rolf Schmidt Petersen, the Interstate Stream Commission's director, said the four upper basin states — New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — will do what they can to conserve water, but it likely will be limited.

They're already receiving and using considerably less than their maximum federal water allotments, Schmidt Petersen said.

In New Mexico, water is diverted from the Colorado River Basin through a complex series of tunnels and dams known as the San Juan-Chama Project. This water merges with the Rio Grande and supplements supply for Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Native pueblos and irrigators in the middle valley.

The Reclamation Bureau this year issued less than half of the full San Juan-Chama allocation, Schmidt Petersen said. That's in contrast to the lower basin states that receive their maximum allotments, he said.

Frankel said fixing the dam's plumbing issues will ensure all the states aren't shorted any more than they already are. It also will prevent possible legal tussles between the upper and lower basin states over water deliveries, he said.

Dave DuBois, New Mexico's state climatologist, said aside from the warming climate straining the river, there's an increasing number of users, which together will create continuing challenges even with infrastructure improvements.

"There are so many straws that are in that river," DuBois said.