What Happens If Glen Canyon Dam’s Power Shuts Off?Glen Canyon Dam forms the massive reservoir of Lake Powell. Water in Powell is released thro...What Happens If Glen Canyon Dam’s Power Shuts Off?
Glen Canyon Dam forms the massive reservoir of Lake Powell. Water in Powell is released through turbines in the dam, generating power that electrifies homes, businesses, rural coops, and irrigation pumps across six states and more than 50 Native American tribes. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – June 6, 2022
Glen Canyon Dam is operating at 60 percent of its hydroelectric capacity.
Hydropower generation will likely shut down when Lake Powell’s elevation drops below 3,490 feet. Currently the lake is at 3,534 feet.
Besides the kilowatt-hours it generates, Glen Canyon provides key services to the electric grid.
Critics of the Bureau of Reclamation had a favored slur for the concrete and earthen walls that the federal agency raised across magnificent canyons of the Colorado River watershed: cash register dams.
The dig wasn’t wrong, especially during the agency’s mid-20th century construction spree. For decades, hydroelectric dams in the Colorado River Storage Project supplied cheap power and a relatively steady revenue stream from electricity sales that helped repay dam construction and operation costs while also subsidizing crop production and settlement of the American West.
Today, the cash registers are ringing at much lower decibels. Sapped by a warming climate, the grand reservoirs of the Colorado River are in a two-decade decline, dropping low enough that hydropower from one of the grandest, Lake Powell, may soon be in doubt.
The country’s second largest reservoir and a lynchpin in the intermountain electric grid, Powell is more dirt than water these days. The reservoir holds just 27 percent of its full capacity. In April it dropped to a level not witnessed since Glen Canyon Dam was completed nearly six decades ago. Water in Powell is released through turbines in the dam, generating power that electrifies homes, businesses, rural coops, and irrigation pumps across six states and more than 50 Native American tribes.
Lake Powell’s feeble condition is part of a climate reckoning in the West that links water, ecosystems, food production, and energy generation. A drying climate and withering heat in recent years have pummeled the region: water cuts to farmers, dry wells, mass fish and bird die-offs, and depleted reservoirs that have decimated hydropower output.
Glen Canyon Dam is now operating at about 60 percent of its designed hydroelectric capacity, according to Nick Williams, the Upper Colorado River Basin power office manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. Rated for 1,320 megawatts — roughly the size of a large fossil fuel plant — the dam is now capable of only 800 megawatts.