The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will release an extra 500,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to help maintain hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam amid drought conditions that have parched the West for more than two decades.

The action will draw down Flaming Gorge Reservoir’s surface about 10 feet by August and possibly a total of 15 feet later in the fall, according to the BOR. News of the Flaming Gorge release follows calls on two other river systems in Wyoming in April. Those actions were also prompted by “supply side” water shortages due to persisting drought and lower snowpack.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Green River, straddles the Wyoming-Utah border south of Rock Springs. The Flaming Gorge dam, on the Utah side, was completed in 1964 and is a critical component of the Colorado River water storage system. The Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado River, originates in the Wind River Range, flows to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then connects with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir at the dam in Utah, September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the largest in Wyoming with a storage capacity of nearly 3.8 million acre feet of water, is well-suited to provide extra flows to help address supply shortages on the Colorado River, according to former Wyoming State Engineer Patrick Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“There will be no additional regulation for municipalities or irrigators or industry in the Wyoming part of the [Colorado River] basin because of what’s going on at Flaming Gorge,” Tyrrell said. “However, we have to be vigilant.”

‘Unprecedented’ conservation measures

The release from Flaming Gorge is part of an “unprecedented” water conservation effort on the Colorado River, which serves tens of millions of people in the American southwest and northern Mexico.

In addition to the release from Flaming Gorge, the BOR will withhold 480,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell, while Colorado River Lower Basin users have agreed to increased water conservation measures. The Upper Colorado Basin 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan will remain in effect until early 2023.

“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River Basin,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo said during a press call on Tuesday. “The conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demands that we take prompt action.”

Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah side near the dam in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The surface elevation at Lake Powell recently fell to 3,522 feet, the lowest since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Water intake ducts at the dam’s hydroelectric power station would no longer function if the lake’s surface level reaches 3,490 feet, according to the BOR. 

The rebalancing of water supplies between the Upper Basin — which includes Wyoming — and Lower Basin stakeholders is necessary to ensure hydroelectric generation and water supply for the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation and the city of Page, Ariz., the BOR said. Stakeholders in all seven Colorado River Basin states, along with partners in Mexico, agreed to BOR’s conservation actions for this year through a process spelled out in the Colorado River 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.

Although the BOR’s authority over the Colorado River water storage system didn’t require Wyoming’s approval for the drought contingency actions, Wyoming supports the effort, said Tyrrell, adding that it is also in the state’s interest.

“We can’t sit by and just keep [Flaming] Gorge full while everybody else below us is drying up,” Tyrrell said. “Protecting the power pool Lake Powell is really an ultimate goal for all of us — from compact compliance, to the power grid, to funding for reclamation, to environmental programs. Lake Powell is a very key component in that river.”

The Highway 191 Cart Creek Bridge spans Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah. (RJ Pieper)

The water in Flaming Gorge Reservoir is almost entirely appropriated to the BOR’s Colorado River water storage complex, as spelled out in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Tyrrell said. That means the primary purpose of the reservoir is to backfill Lake Powell when needed.

“I think that there’s probably an expectation, because of 50 years of operating the Gorge as we have, that it will just simply always be full,” Tyrrell said.

This year, that won’t be the case.  

Flaming Gorge

The BOR released an extra 125,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir between July and October 2021 as part of the same Colorado River drought contingency plan. That dropped the surface level by about 5 feet.

As of May 5, the average daily release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir will increase from 850 cubic feet per second to 1,800 cfs, according to the BOR. The reservoir’s surface elevation was 6,018 feet on April 5, or 78% of total storage capacity.

“We can’t sit by and just keep [Flaming] Gorge full while everybody else below us is drying up.”

Patrick Tyrrell, Upper Colorado River Commissioner representing Wyoming

Wyoming’s primary concern is how much time it will take to replenish the reservoir, Tyrrell said. There are no restrictions for water users upstream of the reservoir, and the rate of inflow from runoff and precipitation events portends a slow refill, according to forecasts. Inflow rates are estimated at 84% of average for April, 48% of average for May and 53% for July, according to the BOR.

Absent precipitation that beats current forecasts, the reservoir’s surface is estimated to fall 10 feet by August and possibly by 15 feet later in the year. That level of decline isn’t expected to negatively impact the fishery, according to local anglers. However, it could make boating access more difficult in the long run if there are multiple years of extra releases combined with lower-than-average refill.

Boat ramps stretch to the water at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“For now, it doesn’t really change much,” longtime Flaming Gorge angler Chris Taylor said. “Every single boat ramp on the lake will still be accessible. They’ll still be connected to the water.”

Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a key component of the economy and culture of Sweetwater County, Taylor said. There’s a flotilla of watercraft on the lake during a typical summer day with people water skiing, jet skiing and angling for mackinaw trout, kokanee salmon and smallmouth bass.

Locals enjoy all of the perks of the reservoir, Taylor said, and sometimes forget about its main purpose — to backfill Lake Powell.

“But the water drawdown isn’t going to affect much, unless it’s like 50 feet,”  said Taylor, a University of Wyoming student who plans to work at the Buckboard Marina at Flaming Gorge this summer. “Everyday after my shift, I’m going out and casting a line.”

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Arizona , California and Nevada have already had cutbacks in place for a while. There are spots between AZ and CA where you can walk across the river. There are two groups, the lower Colorado river basin and upper. Utah and Colorado have been violating a 1922 agreement between upper and lower basin and diverting more water than they are allotted with plans to divert even more. Lake Mead in Nevada is in the same boat as Lake Powell. Vegas may somehow be using more water than they are allotted but try to prove it. Many cities in socal are on well water and have catch basins. If that isn’t enough, the water companies buy from Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles which controls the water from Lake Havasu. The water flows to LA County from the river and is part of the California Aqueduct, which also is fed by rivers up north. Golf courses use recycled non potable water. LA has a project to clean and reuse sewer water. Kind of nauseating but I don’t know if people will be notified.

  2. wonder what is the effect on the Green River tail water below the dam!
    from an average of 800 cfs to 1800, more than double.
    perhaps if this release is kept constant, with no high & lows…

  3. It’s past time for Southern California, Nevada and Arizona to stop allowing their exploding population growth by limiting growth to current water availability. Southern California is particularly abusing this situation.
    There simply isn’t any water to sustain any more population growth. If those areas want to continue to grow , they must begin major desalination projects. While water conservation is noble and necessary continuing to drain water from upper basin states is a bandaid on the real problem.

  4. The state of Wyoming will regret allowing the energy sector to contaminate aquifers with fracking fluids. Non existent monitoring of petrochemical waste re injected in future water sources will only add to Wyoming’s water issues. A state legislature based on ignorance and white grievance won’t get you a glass of clean drinking water in the future.

  5. I find it difficult to send water downstream so Nevada Arizona and California can waste it on recreational facilities such as golf courses. California should have tapped into the ocean 40 years ago to meet their water usage demands and we should not be growing high water demand crops in the desert.

  6. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

    The Bureau of Reclamation and the Western Power Administration have known for decades that the Colorado River Basin has been in a drought and, for the past several years, that the region is now in a long term period of aridification. The BOR recognizes that what they are doing by draining Colorado River upstream reservoirs to maintain power generation at Glen Canyon Dam is futile as they note in their latest drought response plans given the aridification of the region. Ref. https://www.usbr.gov/dcp/droa.html

    Yet they insist on trying to preserve an out of date combined water and power strategy from the 1950’s in a new century and under different climatic conditions rather than adapting and developing a more resilient and economic strategy that separates power generation and Colorado River water management.

    The total dollar amount of power sold (at subsidized rates) from Glen Canyon has been shrinking due to lower water flow for years and is not significant relative to the GDP of the Colorado Basin states. It is significant to the small number of participants who benefit from the massive federal spending and bureaucracy that created and maintains the hydropower, hence the antiquated and futile strategy being pursued by BOR and WPA.

    Suppose for a moment that there was new leadership for a new century. This leadership would recognize that hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam is no longer reliable. It may be available in some years or there could be a massive new investment program to modify the dam to operate in a different way. But it makes no sense to keep trying to fill a desert reservoir at the expense of the upstream reservoirs just for the small amount of hydropower that does not benefit the greater region.

    Average July temperature at Dutch John is historically over 25 degrees cooler than at Lee’s Ferry and the January temperature difference is similar. With aridification, the air and ground temperature is increasing faster in Arizona than Wyoming. There is slightly higher groundwater loss at Powell vs Flaming Gorge and groundwater losses at 6000 feet are eventually going to flow downstream anyway. So there is no rationale to store system water at the lowest possible elevation at the highest temperature in the desert except to continue an antiquated subsidy program.

    It is long past time to redesign the Glen Canyon power grid to run off of sustainable, renewable low cost energy and recognize that Colorado River hydropower is no longer a base load resource.

    Wind and solar costs are orders of magnitude cheaper now than when the hydropower system was designed and they are not negatively impacted by aridification. The WPA should be expediting the construction of wind, solar and storage facilities at and around Glen Canyon to reutilize the power grid while disconnecting Colorado River water management from the out of date power subsidy strategy.

    Separating water management from power subsidies would be much better for Colorado Basin water users since it would store system water at the most efficient locations in Colorado (Blue Mesa 7500 ft), Wyoming (Flaming Gorge (6000 ft) and and New Mexico (Navajo Reservoir 5700 ft) vs. Glen Canyon at 3525 ft. And the development of a modern, cost efficient renewable energy system to replace the out of date WPA strategy would generate jobs and help make the Western US truly energy independent despite aridification.

    1. Mr. Wallentine, Thank you for your informative article. I live in Uintah County, Utah and have been concerned about the Flaming Gorge water release. People like me don’t realize the history, processes and future repercussions of water release and prolonged drought. Increased public knowledge of an outdated power system, as well as how arid our air and soil are becoming, plus our reservoirs not being replenished by rains and snows, such knowledge needs to be shared more among the common citizen.
      Once again, Mr. Wallentine, thank you for your informational article. I look forward to reading more from you.
      Sharon Freeman

  7. It seems to me, the stakeholders need to pony up for costs to increase the length of the boat ramps.

  8. I think it is about time that people in the cities start thinking about water conservation methods. Here in Sweetwater County, where Flaming Gorge is, we have been in a drought for at least 15 years. What about all of the swimming pool, golf courses, man made water features….etc. that all consume drinking water , power etc. in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix????