ENVIRONMENT

Water managers hope for snow to raise Lake Powell water level

Jan 25, 2024, 1:05 PM | Updated: 1:05 pm

The Wahweap Marina and parts of Lake Powell in Arizona, foreground, and Utah, background, are pictu...

The Wahweap Marina and parts of Lake Powell in Arizona, foreground, and Utah, background, are pictured on Monday, July 18, 2022. (Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)

LAKE POWELL, Ariz. — The nation’s second-largest reservoir is in better shape than last year, however, the Lake Powell water level is still lower than it should be. 

Lake Powell hit a record low of 22% capacity in early 2023 following the effects of long-term drought and downstream water use. Record snowpack shortly followed, helping the reservoir rebound to about 40% capacity.

As of Thursday, the reservoir is just 33% full.

Snow could raise Lake Powell water level

“The dry winter has not been kind to us,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River commissioner.

Lake Powell is fed by the Colorado River, beginning in Northern Colorado. Further downstream, more water sources merge with it, including the Green River.

Water released from Lake Powell through the Glen Canyon Dam travels through the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. Then it makes its way along Arizona’s border with Nevada and California. Finally, it passes into Mexico, ending in the Gulf of California.

Shawcroft said the mountain snowpack is crucial to making up lost ground in Lake Powell. Especially as it travels through the Northern Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

“We don’t have a big storage reservoir sitting above us that we can just simply say, ‘we want x amount of water,’ and have it show up,” Shawcroft said. “Our snowpack is our reservoir.”

Additionally, data from the USDA’s National Water and Climate Center said the snowpack sites that contribute to the Lake Powell water level are at a combined 90% of normal as of Thursday. It is 10% below average.

However, Shawcroft said that based on the most recent estimates, the reservoir will only get about 77% of the water it normally gets in a given year in 2024. 

What needs to change?

Shawcroft said they need more, ideally, atmospheric rivers, bringing large amounts of water to areas of the state that feed Lake Powell.

The period between now and April 1 is when Utah’s snowpack peaks. 

Thursday’s storm will hit parts of Southern Utah. However, it might not have a big impact either.

It’s focused around Cedar City and St. George, which isn’t an area that contributes to Lake Powell. The storm was one of the largest that Southern Utah has seen all winter. 

Shawcroft said there is time to turn things around. However, if it doesn’t, the continued efforts of Utahns to conserve water will always make a difference.

“When we’re in these in-between years, it is absolutely critical,” Shawcroft said. “We need to pay attention not only every year but every day.”

The lower basin states, California, Nevada, and Arizona are in shortage criteria again this year, meaning they have to cut their water use.

Big changes could also be coming to how the waters of Lake Powell and the Colorado River are managed in 2026. The current water use rules established in 2007 are set to expire at the end of 2025. Negotiations of new rules are already taking place.

Related: Lake Powell Pipeline opponents urge cancellation of the project

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Water managers hope for snow to raise Lake Powell water level