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A 20-Year Megadrought Threatens Hydropower In The West

NOEL KING, HOST:

A 20-year megadrought in the West is threatening hydropower for millions of people, so the federal government is taking emergency action. It's sending water from other reservoirs to Lake Powell to help keep the power turbines there spinning. Here's Michael Elizabeth Sakas from Colorado Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: At Elk Creek Marina, people wait in line to back their trailers into the water to pull their boats out. And some, like Walter Swetkoff, are frustrated.

WALTER SWETKOFF: We've seen this lake go up and down many times, but we're not happy with it this year, of course, because we're all getting kicked out early and we paid for our slips for the season.

SAKAS: Blue Mesa is Colorado's largest reservoir. It's already less than 38% full, and now it's being forced to sacrifice more water to send to Lake Powell. Eric Loken is head of operations at Elk Creek Marina. He had to shut down six weeks early because of the low water levels.

ERIC LOKEN: It's a big hit for us, for sure. There's a bunch of employees that thought they would be employed into October, and suddenly they're out looking for employment in the middle of August.

SAKAS: The deepening drought in the West has dealt a double blow to Blue Mesa this summer. With climate change, there's less snowpack. And warmer temperatures increase evaporation, so less water is making it into the Colorado River and reservoirs like Blue Mesa. And now the federal government is taking water from this lake and two other reservoirs.

LOKEN: If we were full, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But since we're already so low and we're barely, you know, hanging on by our fingertips on trying to stay open, you take 8 feet of water and suddenly we got to shut the doors and move everything out to deeper water, and there's nothing we can do about it.

SAKAS: Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, hit its lowest level on record earlier this summer. Loken worries the reservoir will need even more water from Blue Mesa if the drought doesn't improve.

LOKEN: The question is, are they just going to release whatever we get? And that would become a very big problem for everyone around here.

SAKAS: Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs were built in the 1960s for times of drought. It's a bank of water that the states can tap when they need it, says John McClow, a water lawyer in Colorado.

JOHN MCCLOW: The water always goes to Lake Powell, and this release is part of a plan, and it's using the reservoirs for one of their intended purposes.

SAKAS: But in 2019, after it was clear that the prolonged drought was only getting worse, the states that share the Colorado River agreed to this new plan. That's what triggered the emergency water releases, when Lake Powell dropped to a point that threatened hydroelectricity production. Erik Knight is a hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

ERIK KNIGHT: Hydropower generation is obviously very important to a lot of the customers around the Western states, and also there's a lot of funding for programs that come from hydropower revenue.

SAKAS: The money from hydropower helps pay for the construction and maintenance of the dams and reservoirs. Lake Powell's dam is already producing less power because of the drought, so the federal agency that distributes the electricity has had to buy more power for its customers, and it's expected that the price of that power will go up. Knight says if snowpack and water runoff remain low again next year, the federal government could take more water from Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs.

KNIGHT: Obviously, we need to be ready to do something, and so we've done a little bit so far. But, you know, no one can really answer the question as to whether or not that would be enough or not.

SAKAS: Researchers have found that much of the past two decades of Western drought is due to the warming climate. Knight says the tens of millions of people who rely on the complex Colorado River management system might need to adapt it to an even drier, warmer future, one its creators never imagined.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Gunnison, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.