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July 6, 2004

Electricity output slashed as Powell water level shrinks

Article Published: Monday, July 05, 2004 Drought draining power

By Theo Stein Denver Post Staff Writer

Plummeting water levels in Lake Powell have drastically slashed electricity generation at the reservoir's Glen Canyon Dam, forcing power authorities to cut deliveries to utilities from the Front Range to Provo, Utah.

Federal officials fear that $100 million worth of hydropower generated annually by Lake Powell could dry up completely by 2009 - if dam managers continue releasing water at pre-drought rates.

That would deal a crushing economic blow not only to utilities that depend on cheap hydropower from Lake Powell, but also to a host of federal and state programs, including Colorado's endangered-fish recovery efforts.

Meanwhile, water levels in Lake Powell have fallen so low that Colorado and neighboring states are considering asking the federal government to preserve the lake's water for drinking supplies, which would cut hydropower production even further.

"We are looking to see if there are ways to slow down the decline of Lake Powell and Lake Mead," said Russ George, Colorado's natural resources director. "We can't make more water. We're asking ourselves: 'Are there things we can be doing to avoid taking water out?"'

Federal officials say they welcome state input on how best to manage the water supply in Lake Powell and its sister reservoir in Arizona, Lake Mead, during the drought.

On June 17, the seven Colorado River basin states - California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado - asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a series of computer models simulating the impact of various drought and water-delivery scenarios. The results will form the basis of a report to the Interior Department offering recommendations for water management during the drought and after.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton "is very serious about the states being in the lead as long as possible," Bennett Raley, the assistant Interior secretary who oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, said last week.

Only if the states can't develop a conservation plan will the federal government step in, Raley said.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead were designed decades ago to provide drought-proof supplies of drinking water for the arid Southwestern states along the Colorado River. Cheap hydropower from Mead's Hoover Dam and Powell's Glen Canyon Dam was a side benefit that became a critical foundation for the region's 20th century urban and industrial growth.

The five-year drought has already drained Lake Powell to 43 percent of capacity, reducing the pressure of water entering Glen Canyon's turbines. That lost pressure, or "hydraulic head," has slashed the dam's generating capacity by some 30 percent, leading to higher costs for Colorado's electric utilities served by the Western Area Power Administration.

In 2002, WAPA, which sells power from dams in the Colorado River Storage Project, raised rates 18 percent. During the past two years, WAPA was forced to buy $135 million worth of power to honor existing contracts with Colorado and Utah utilities. The power administration also had to slash deliveries by a quarter this year.

If Glen Canyon Dam's output is cut completely, "(our) power could be priced out of the market," warned WAPA's Brad Warren.

And still Lake Powell continues to fall.

Last winter's meager snows were expected to yield only half the average runoff to the Colorado River, continuing a trend that started with the onset of drought in 2000.

Powell is so low that federal hydrologists estimate there is a 20 percent chance that drought could eliminate hydropower within five years. A repeat of the disastrous 2002 drought year - or even two more marginally better years like 2004 - could interrupt electric generation even sooner.

"If hydro is curtailed, they'll be forced to go from low-cost electricity that's locked in to higher-priced power and the vagaries of the market," said Jim Owens, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

Those costs are already being passed on to customers.

"We had a 10 percent rate increase in 2002 and another small increase last year," said Jim Van Someren, a spokesman for Westminster-based Tri- State Generating and Transmission, the Colorado River Storage Project's biggest customer.

This summer, the Tri-State board will probably have to consider another rate hike for 2005, he said.

If the drought worsens, falling hydropower revenues also will shrink the revolving fund that contributes $50 million each year to environmental programs, including the state's endangered-fish recovery efforts.

Since 1988, $138.7 million has been raised by federal and state agencies for the recovery program, which seeks to restore healthy populations of the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail in the upper Colorado and San Juan river systems.

Glen Canyon has contributed about $51 million. By contrast, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah only gave $14.6 million during the same time period.

Protecting that federal contribution "is at the top of our agenda," George said.

Some environmental groups, such as Living Rivers of Salt Lake City, believe a more cost- effective way to recover the four endangered fish is to decommission the Glen Canyon Dam once drought drains the lake behind it.

They believe the region has entered a drier climate regime that was much more common in the past.

Owen Lammers, the group's executive director, chafes at the description of dam's hydropower as clean, cheap energy.

"That ignores the tremendous impact the dam has had on Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon," Lammers said.

Lammers said it is likely that Lake Powell will take many years to refill - if it refills at all. That will reduce electric revenues in perpetuity and put pressure on federal officials to divert money from projects meant to repair the damage caused by plugging up the river.

"If we can encourage 10 million households in the basin to put in a couple of compact fluorescent lights," Lammers said, "we can eliminate the power needed from Glen Canyon Dam - at a cost that's one-seventh of the power the dam produces."

Staff writer Theo Stein can be reached at 303-820-1657 or

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