Shocking New Photos of Lake Powell Water Loss

It’s one thing to know a water body vital to life as we know it is down to 26% capacity. But to see it in actual photos, such as the satellite images released today by NASA of parts of Lake Powell, is sobering. Even more sobering is the fact that the “full” photo is from 2017, when the lake was only “nearly” full at 3,633 feet. Today, Lake Powell’s water stands at 3,535 feet. That’s 98 feet lower than in 2017 and 166 feet lower than “full pool” elevation measured in June 1980.

Lake Powell depleting water shortage Colorado River
Lake Powell depleting water shortage Colorado River
In August 2017 (left), the water elevation on Lake Powell, as measured at Glen Canyon Dam, was 3,633 feet. In August 2022, it stands at 3,535 feet, nearly 98 feet lower. (Image: earthobservatory.nasa.gov)

This is the lowest water mark for Lake Powell since it was filled in 1967, according to NASA. It is so low, it seriously endangers the production of hydroelectric power for seven U.S. states.

Lake Powell is the second largest manmade reservoir in the U.S. after Lake Mead — though Lake Mead has fallen below Lake Powell in size several times this century in water volume, depth and surface area. Sitting mostly on Utah’s southeastern border with northeastern Arizona, Lake Powell was created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam, which also led to the 1972 creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. 

Lakes Mead and Powell are both part of the Colorado River basin, which provides water and electricity to 40 million people — most notably in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego and Las Vegas — and to 4 to 5 million acres of farmland in the Southwest. Lake Powell acts as a holding tank for river outflow from the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) to Lake Mead, the holding tank for the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona and California). 

Water, Water Nowhere

Three years of intense drought and two decades of long-term drought in the American Southwest continue to deplete the levels of both lakes. About 86% of the land area across nine western states was affected by some level of drought, according to an Aug. 16, 2022 report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Hydrologists predict that Lake Powell levels could drop to 3,522 feet by Jan. 1, 2023. (Based on August 2022 modeling projections, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects total inflows to Lake Powell to be just 62% of average for the year.) At the same time, water storage at Lake Mead on Aug. 22, 2022 stood at 28% of capacity, and the entire Colorado river system held just 34%.

On Aug. 16, 2002, federal water managers were forced to reduce the Colorado River water allotment of two states. Beginning in 2023, Arizona will receive 21% less and Nevada 8% less.

The current drought in the U.S. West marks the region’s driest 22-year stretch in 1,200 years, according to a study published February 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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