The massive dams on the Colorado River were supposed to protect us.
At the dedication of Hoover Dam, the colossus just outside of Las Vegas created Lake Mead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrated “its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.” The Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960’s into the red rocks of Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell. Floyd Dominy, the Reclamation Commissioner who presided over its construction extolled that “you wouldn't have anywhere near the number of people living comfortably in the West if you hadn't developed the projects, if you hadn't managed the water.”
Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.
How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.
In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.