Powell hydro powers Dolores Project

By Mike Preston

Dolores Water Conservancy District

The Cortez Journal article "McPhee vulnerable to crisis at Powell" published on May 16 has prompted a lot of interest and dialogue. This column will build on this dialogue with details about vulnerabilities for the Dolores Project and the importance of efforts to be prepared.

The Colorado River Basin Compact of 1922 obligates Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah to not cause depletions at Lee Ferry, just below Lake Powell, to fall below a rolling 10-year average of 75 million acre feet of water. Lake Powell was built to store Upper Basin water to assure compliance with compact obligations to the Lower Basin and to generate affordable hydropower to operate storage projects such as the Dolores Project, while serving 5.8 million power customers in Colorado and the West.

With the rolling average of Upper Basin releases from Lake Powell at 90 million acre feet, it would take years before the 10-year non-depletion rolling average would fall below the 75 million acre-feet in 10 years and trigger a "compact call" for release of water from all junior water rights including Colorado River Storage Projects Act projects such as the Dolores Project.

A crisis that could develop much sooner would be for Lake Powell elevations to fall below the minimum operating levels for hydropower generation facilities at Glen Canyon Dam. As the May 16 article pointed out, with Lake Powell at 42 percent of full, power production could be lost in three to four years if the weather pattern of 2000-2007 repeated itself. Fortunately, a good 2014 snowpack on the Green and upper main stem Colorado Rivers delayed this potential crisis by about a year. Loss of power production is not an immediate problem, but one that Dolores Project participants need to watch closely.

Loss of the affordable power that Lake Powell produces could impact the Dolores Project in three significant ways. First, the $450,000 spent annually on power to operate project facilities could double or triple. Second, funds generated by Lake Powell hydropower are being shared with the Dolores Project to fund $7 million in pumping plant and facility overhauls that would otherwise need to be financed with borrowed money. Third, the Dolores Project relies upon the Upper Colorado River and San Juan River Endangered Fish Recovery Implementation Programs to provide Endangered Species Act coverage for operations. These ESA programs are funded with power revenues. These changes could have a profound impact on the cost of Dolores Project irrigation water and on DWCD finances.

The Upper Division States and Bureau of Reclamation are investigating contingency plans to avoid the prospect of loss of power generation at Lake Powell and the negative impacts that would come with it. This planning includes evaluation of extending operations at CRSP facilities to shore up storage at Lake Powell if and when necessary. The news report suggested that all CRSP facilities could be subject to extended operations as an option that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Division States are exploring. Fortunately, that is not the case. The Upper Division States are only exploring options for extended operations at the original CRSP facilities (Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge, Aspinall Unit, and Navajo Reservoir).

We all need to stay on top of the hydropower issues and work with interested parties to avoid the loss of power and power revenues. Hopefully, we'll get some relief from the drought and such an outcome won't occur soon. We also need to minimize the impacts of drought cycles on local water needs with in-basin water resources and facilities. This will be the subject of future dialogue and news coverage.