Drought conditions could impact power generation in the West


Ongoing drought in parts of the West could trigger water conservation measures across seven states this year.

It would mark the first time that cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago have been put in place.

Everything from hydroelectric power generation to agricultural production to the bubbling fountains at Las Vegas casinos could be impacted.

Impacts on hydro generation could have ripple effects across the Southwest, including solar and energy storage.

A forecast released in mid-January by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — are both approaching near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, agreements signed by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to keep the federal government from stepping in and imposing cuts of its own.

The Upper Colorado River basin region includes all or parts of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Drought has been an ongoing problem across much of the region for most of the century. The Bureau of Reclamation’s latest quarterly report showed Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and Lake Mead at 40%.

Three hydro plants that could be affected as water levels fall are the 1,312 MW station built at Glen Canyon Dam in 1964, and two hydro plants at Hoover Dam, which were built in 1936 and have a combined capacity of 2,078 MW.

In 2019, the Glen Canyon station generated nearly 4 million MWh of electricity. Combined, the two Hoover Dam stations generated roughly 3.4 million MWh, according to S&P Global.

The Bureau of Reclamation said in its report that during the 21-year period from 2000 to 2020, inflow to Lake Powell, which is a good measure of hydrologic conditions in the Colorado River Basin, was above average in only four of the past 19 years. It said the period 2000-2020 was the lowest 21-year period since the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963.

The report said that under the current most probable forecast, the total water-year 2021 inflow to Lake Powell would be 5.72 million acre-feet, or roughly 53% of average.

If worst-case projections materialize, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — measured as 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022, threatening the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity.

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