Glen Canyon's generating days are numbered

Also: Floyd Dominy waxes poetic; Climate change is the culprit

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. 

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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.

Source: Mankin JS, Simpson I, Hoell A, Fu R, Lisonbee J, Sheffield A, Barrie D. (2021) NOAA Drought Task Force Report on the 2020–2021 Southwestern U.S. Drought. NOAA Drought Task Force, MAPP, and NIDIS.

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.

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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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I know, I know, we talk about Lake Powell a lot here at the Land Desk. But it’s hard not to. After all, it’s far more than just another reservoir, it is also a barometer of the health of the Colorado River system, a symbol of hubris, and a constant reminder of all that has been lost. So when I ran into a little booklet put out by the Bureau of Reclamation back in 1966, I couldn’t help but share with my readers a few little nuggets from Lake Powell: Jewel of the Colorado. It is a love letter not to Glen Canyon, but to the dam and the resulting reservoir—and a rather schmaltzy one at that.

Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall called Lake Powell the “creation of new beauty to amplify the beauty which is our heritage.” The prose in the rest of the booklet—interspersed with verses of poetry—gets even more gushing and makes a wild an ridiculous claim or two, such as: “Ancient Indian civilization died for lack of understanding how to use the river’s water to alleviate great drought.” Ahh, no.

And then there’s this:

To the sea my waters wasted / While the lands cried out for moisture. / Now man controls me / Stores me, regulates my flow.

To have a deep blue lake / Where no lake was before / Seems to bring man / A little closer to God.

I’m not sure who the poet is, but Floyd Dominy, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation when Glen Canyon Dam was built, tries his hand at flowery prose:

Evolution into convolution and involution. Sharp edges, round edges, blunt edges, soaring edges. Spires, cliffs, and castles in the sky. … If you’re tired in mind and soul, in need of restful serenity, I don’t know a better place. If you want to be alone, you can be alone. You just can’t crowd Lake Powell’s 1,860 miles of shoreline … For that grand old American custom of seeing America first, where could be better?

And, finally, a little bit about the proposed but never built Bridge Canyon Dam, which would have backed water up into the Grand Canyon.

I wonder what ol’ Floyd Dominy would say about his dam and reservoir now?

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WE’RE READING a strong piece by Nick Martin via High Country News about the recent “discovery” of 23,000-year-old human footprints in White Sands National Park. The find has been touted as evidence that humans were in North America 10,000 years before scientists previously believed. But as Martin points out, had the scientists simply paid attention to Indigenous histories, they already would have known that people were here long before the footprints were made. It’s a must read.

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I spoke at length recently with Doug Fabrizio at KUER’s RadioWest about my new book, Sagebrush Empire. Take a listen to the show if you’d like.

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And, finally, to all you free-riders—a.k.a. non-paid subscribers: You’re missing out! Land Desk subscribers engaged in a wonderful conversation last week, throwing out smart solutions to public land overcrowding. Sign up and check it out (and get involved in future discussions).

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