Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the U.S., has experienced an increase in water levels over the past year, primarily due to above-average snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. Satellite images taken by NASA’s OLI-2 and OLI show the differing shorelines of the reservoir between September 2022 and October 2023.
Located on the Utah and Arizona border, Lake Powell was gradually drying up due to a decades-long megadrought that has impacted the U.S. Southwest. In April of this year, the reservoir reached record low levels at only 22 percent of its full capacity.
However, the substantial snowpack accumulated during the winter led to a significant rise in the lake’s water level as the snowmelt flowed down from the Rockies. As of November 14, 2023, the water level of Lake Powell stands at 3,572.18 feet above sea level, representing a 35.7 percent full capacity.
Despite the increase in water levels, concerns regarding drought persist in the southwestern states. Experts believe that several years of sustained water supply would be required to bring Lake Powell closer to its full capacity. The recovery process for the Colorado River Basin, which includes refilling its reservoirs, would be lengthy even if conditions were to suddenly become wetter.
There are worries that the ongoing drought may result in Lake Powell running dry, potentially falling below the critical “minimum power pool” level of 3,490 feet. If this occurs, water would no longer be able to flow through the hydroelectric turbines that generate electricity from the Glen Canyon Dam. A draft environmental impact statement released in April predicted a 57 percent chance of reaching this critical point before 2026, but the revised estimate in October reduced it to an 8 percent chance due to the recent rise in water levels.
Climate change could exasperate the megadrought and further deplete Lake Powell in the future. Less snowmelt and increasing water demand from soil and plants are consequences of warming conditions caused by climate change. Impacting agriculture, Lake Powell and other reservoirs along the Colorado River provide water and hydroelectric power to millions of people in the region. Agriculture, being the largest user of Colorado River water, is particularly affected, leading to potential consequences for the broader country and regions reliant on grain and vegetable exports from the Southwest.
One proposed solution to mitigate the water supply issue is to drain Lake Powell and use it to refill Lake Mead, known as the “Fill Mead First” plan. Although organizations like the Glen Canyon Institute support this approach, there is opposition to the idea, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has not shown signs of considering this option.
While Lake Powell’s recent increase in water levels brings temporary relief, ongoing efforts to address the drought and long-term water management strategies are crucial for the sustainability of the region’s water resources and the communities that rely on them.