Our Coming Reality: The Trickle of the (Once) Mighty Colorado River

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Glen Canyon DamnThere is a coming war on the western economy.  Not the fake war promoted by our federally-subsidized rural electric system but a real one, waged by a formidable opponent: Mother Nature.

If there was ever an argument for a transition to a 21st-century energy infrastructure, look no further than our current challenges with the economies that have been built on the backs of the Colorado River. 

Glen Canyon Dam, a component of the Colorado River Storage Project, requires a minimum lake elevation of 3,450 ft to provide enough hydraulic head to maintain its generation capacity.  Today, that level rests at approximately 3,550 feet msl (mean sea level); it is projected to fall below the required minimum of 3,450 feet in 2015 and to remain below the operational levels beyond 2020. 

The once-mighty Colorado: a treasured, western resource that serves the water demands for the majority of Colorado's 5 million residents.  Glen Canyon Dam, located in the Upper Basin of the Colorado, supplies the electrical needs to 5.8 million people including a significant number of Coloradans.  Two of the top five, long-term energy purchasers of Glen Canyon hydro-power are Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the Platte River Power Authority.  System wide, four million people rely on the Colorado River Storage Project.  Irrigators from Wyoming to Mexico tap the resource for crop production.  The combined metropolitan areas served by the project would be the 12th largest economy in the world with $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product. 

Not only are Colorado's water managers becoming gravely concerned, so are Colorado's electrical purveyors: Tri-State pays around 2 cents per kilowatt hour for Colorado River Storage Project power.  If Glen Canyon loses its ability to generate power (1,300 megawatts), one mitigation option would be to replace the lost power with spot market power, which can fluctuated from $0.05 to $1.50 per kw/hr depending on demand.  If the Lake Mead power pool in the Lower Basin becomes inoperative, another 1900 mega watts of federally-subsidized power production will be lost.

 An abandoned fishing boat on the dried up Colorado River delta in MexicoThe potential loss of 3.2 gigawatts of hydro-power seems daunting unless one understands the vast potential of solar and wind energy in the six-state region. Like all crises, weaknesses are exposed – and opportunities emerge.  While our rural cooperatives, municipalities and regional power authorities have enjoyed decades of federally-subsidized power, this begs a question: why in this day and age, with the cost-competitive technology that exists, would we bet the resiliency of our local economies on the generation of an electron in Utah when we are literally drowning in energy in our own back yards?  In an era of increasing concern about terrorist attacks on our largely-centralized electricity grid, why would we not quickly transition to system more distributed in nature.

Instead of a discussion of how we, at nearly any cost, maintain Upper Basin levels that assure the short-term operational capacity of Glen Canyon Dam, why not take that issue off the table?  Why not envision a plan that displaces that capacity with new energy resources?  The cost of building this new capacity would be a drop in the bucket of the $1.7 trillion GMP of the system.  By separating the water needs of the system from the energy needs, we can have a very different conversation. 

There is no shortage of federal programs that could make this transition possible.  USDA-Rural Utilities Service is rich in programs that would support a rural electric's transition to a local, distributive model.  This transition would provide significant opportunities for job creation and new, sustained economic activity.  The plus side? When the Colorado River Storage Project returns to its pre-1999 levels we'll have the benefit of a new hydro-system that can then balance the loads of a vast regional solar and wind system; a new paradigm that manages it's supplies for water-based demands (irrigation and municipal use) other than electrical generation. We will have transitioned this system from one of decades-old base load power approach to one that provides a much more valuable service: load following.  A great deal for the taxpaying American public.

It's important that we protect the use of Colorado River water and guide our state primacy over Upper Basin Water Management.  While we would benefit from synergistic efforts with the Lower Basin – a position best achieved if we can actively manage water elevations in Lake Powell – by taking a proactive lead on bifurcating the demands of the system is a win-win for everyone in the system.

Water advisors from the six Colorado River Basin states have begun a confidential brain-storming exercise to develop an emergency response plan.  Their task: to develop a plan that will likely include the options of voluntary lease-fallowing, deficit irrigation and weather modification. The group will also have the daunting task of navigating the technical and legal challenges of the existing laws that govern the Colorado River.

This is no small challenge – but with it comes extraordinary opportunities.  Let's hope this brain-storming exercise delivers John Q. Public a path forward that provides everyone in the basin with increased resiliency, new ways of thinking about our contemporary challenges, and opportunities develop our vast, untapped renewable energy resources.   Let's stop being held hostage by a scarcity mindset – and focus on our vast abundance. 

In the middle of this dry lake bed let's understand we're drowning in opportunity.

36 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55 says:

    How to not let climate change ruin your economy:

    1. Admit it is happening.

    2. Be flexible enough to support new technologies (wind and solar) not based on the old Colorado climate paradigms of plentiful spring runoff and stored hydro capacity.

    An excellent, readable diary, Michael. Of course, I have some questions:

    Please translate "voluntary lease-fallowing, deficit irrigation and weather modification" from water legalese into English. Weather modification, I think I get – cloud seeding for increased rainfall? My CD3 Representative, Scott Tipton, is promoting himself as an environmentalist, when he is anything but. He sponsored a "small hydro" bill, which he is extremely proud of.

    It seems to me that the drying up of rivers, creeks, and waterways in general would also limit the ability of small hydropower projects to be effective. Is this just a pork project for large agricultural producers, or is it as green and bipartisan and Kumbaya-making as Scotty says it is?

    Thirty years ago, some prescient thinkers were predicting that water wars would be the oil wars of the 21st century. It looks like we're there now – unless we adopt the distributed energy policies you are promoting.

    • MichaelBowman says:

      It sounds like the initial thrust of the brain-storming group is going to be getting farmers to volunarily fallow their land (I assume for payment by the Colorado Water Conservation Board or some other state-based fund) or to get the farmers to switch from high-water use crops (like alfalfa) to something more water-friendly (perhaps industrial hemp?)  You are correct on "weather modification": cloud seeding. 

      All of those options are fine.  But the focus of this diary is in the challenge of thinking outside the box (sorry, I loathe that phrase but don't have a better one).  Think of the Upper Basin (Lake Powell) as our "water bank" that we use for Compact compliance (ultimately water delivery to Lake Meade / Hoover Dam).  Today the Upper Basin is challenged with keeping a water level high enough that Glen Canyon can continue to generate power and provide enough water flow for delivery downstream. 

      Today Glen Canyon is operated as a base load generation facility (think coal plant – always "on").  If we bifurcated the energy generation issue (by making the plant the equivalent of a natural gas peaker plant – one that followed intermitten loads like wind and solar) we could look at managing the resource differently.  Keep in mind, if the water levels fall below 3,450 msl that doesn't mean the lake is dry or loses its ability to release water downstream – it only means there is no longer enough hydraulic "head" to generate power. 

      If we could, over the next five years, build out an equivalent wind/solar system backed up with some natural gas – we could eventually transition to a system where Glen Canyon plays a different (and better) role in the grid: load following and peak support.

      I'm confident there are bus loads of attorneys for current fossil fuel companies who would argue this won't work.  While on one hand they lament the possibility of significant purchases of "spot power pricing" and raising the residential and commercial rates 2-4x, it would be a VERY lucrative business opportunity.  Keep the electrons scarce and control the production.  It's so very American.

      Given this is all Bureau of Reclamation assets – this would likely take Congressional action on some level.  But, the opportunities are immense.  It's a chance to transition Glen Canyon to a more appropriate role, build a resilient, local energy economy and create scores of jobs.  A great deal for American taxpayers, IMHO.  A much better use of tax dollars than fiascos like this.  

      • ajb says:

        While it's true that Glen Canyon Dam is more base/less peaking that it used to be, there are still substantial "tides" in the Grand Canyon that reflect peaking power. The old regime of 3000 – 18,000 cfs was hell on the ecosystem.



        • MichaelBowman says:

          To one of my earlier points, I'm not sure why we generate an electron at Glen Canyon and send it across the wires and the Continental Divide to my irrigation pump in Yuma County.  It made sense at one point in time.  We have a very different scenario/opportunity now.  We can generate power at a reasonable cost right here in our back yard (and at some point John Q. Public is going to be asking my rural electric provider why 2 cent power makes any sense to a cash-strapped federal treasury).  Repurpose Lake Powell as predominantly a water bank and back-up generation/load following.  The more new, distributed assets we put in the system, the better our ability to not be forced to unleash wild swings in stream flow/release from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin. 

        • MichaelBowman says:

          @ajb  I've been looking, but can't find, the answer to this question: Do you know what the required CFS release is needed today to maintain compliance in the Lower Basin? Is it 3,000 cfs 24?7? 5,000?  Whatever that number is, the delta between that number and 10,000 is what we're really arguing over.  Again, if Powell was simply used as the bank for Lower Basin compliance, then a steady flow could be released – no doubt something the environmental community would have a keen interest in doing.  And, to the extent those higher cfs releases are in excess of our minimum requirement to stay in compliance, we're losing our options to keep that water in our 'bank'. 

          Again, I'm not pretending that what I'm proposing is a silver bullet.  I do hope we can start thinking about this problem through a much different lens.  To the extent that we could shave off the 10,000 cfs releases even with distributed, natural gas generators in the grid would be a good first step – if, in fact, we are still over-supplying our Lower Basin requirements to keep Glen Canyon generating and the Lake at 3,450 msl and higher.   We have so many new, good options to electric generation today. And a plethera of government programs to bring them to market.  Let's make sure we do the right thing.


          • ajb says:

            @MB, If I remember this right, Glen Canyon was/is considered a "cash-register dam." That is, the electric revenue is required to push the whole system into the black. Since peaking power is so much more valuable than base load, BuRec wants to generate as much of it as possible. It's also why they oppose the experimental floods – they require rumming water around, not through, the turbines.

            • MichaelBowman says:

              Not surprised at all.  Like almost any federal agency with decades of a particular activity under its belt (farm bill, DOD procurement, power purchases by the BuRec) they are practically incapable of responding to the changing world around us in any timely or competent manner. 

              I had a Capitol Hill staffer tell me recently that BuRec is making spot market purchases of power to backfill their inability to deliver hydropower allocations at price levels that border on  larceny of taxpayer dollars.  And they are so adept at hiding these purchases that even people who understand that budget/approps process have a difficult time finding the transaction.  

              Arguably, up until the past three or four years, there weren't a lot of good options. Almost everything was looked at through the lens of building centralized (mainly coal or nuclear) capacity to keep the system running. 

              Today we have a very different environment. For example, the State of Colorado Land Board stewards over 3 million acres of land – a good share of it has wind or solar resources.  And the new mission statement of the Board is supporting the development of those renewable assets.  We could likely offset all of the Colorado Glen Canyon deficit on state school land alone.  A win-win. 

              If we had the political will we could do it in time to prevent a calamity.  But, that would take political will – something has it's own set of "drought" challenges… 

          • Actually, the variable releases are mandated by environmental concerns, not by power or water supply, which would benefit more from the constant flow scenario.

            The Grand Canyon ecosystem was built around seasonal runoff and flash flooding. Steady flows build up sand bars and silt in the canyon. And so, every year now, they have "runoff events" from Glen Canyon to try to satisfy the Grand Canyon ecosystem and keep the river clear.

  2. Pepto says:

    Senator King is pushing this as a way for California to help protect California water… only long before it gets downriver to reach them.  If I messed up the link again, the url is http://www.krextv.com/story/senator-king-pushes-for-firefighting-support-from-california-20140308

    • Ralphie says:

      Senator King has the IQ of a fencepost.

      • Pepto says:

        Yea, the Colorado legislature shot down the plan to finance his air force so he's had to broaden his search for someone, anyone who can come up with the means to provide said air force…

        • MichaelBowman says:

          He's looking under the wrong rock

          State Sen. Greg Brophy said yesterday on conservative radio that recent wildfires may have been started by terrorists and that "the Governor and Democrats" have left Colorado vulnerable to terrorist attacks due to their failure to spend millions of dollars on air tankers to fight forest fires.

          Someone needs to adjust their meds. 

          The response by the man interviewing my Senator with this starting revelation?

          All Waters could muster for a response was a lovable, "That's very sad." (Is there a medical term for co-dependency between a conservative radio host and a conservative guest? If so, this is it.)


        • MichaelBowman says:

          @Pepto  Read this. 

          "Sen. Brown is encouraged that the Air Force is looking for new opportunities to redeploy existing C-27J aircraft for use in the Forest Service and Coast Guard, and if requested by the appropriate agencies would support continued C-27J construction for homeland security needs," Brown spokesman Ben Famous told the Daily News.

          These dots shouldn't be that hard to connect.  The Air Force is sitting on 17 brand new C-27J's valued at $567 million.  They are open to having other agencies redeploy them (they're already paid for).  The US Forest Service is an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.  The Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack.  Tom is a personal friend of our Governor.  This shouldn't be a difficult transaction to accomplish.

          • horseshit GOP front group says:

            I did not know that about Vilsack and Hickenlooper MichaelBowman.  That would be really smart of Hick to start working on getting those C-27J's ready for wildfire season here, if he hasn't already.  Then heaven forbid anything major happens we are ready to go.  As I understand better snowpack like we have now can actually lead to us being MORE vulnerable to wildfires rather than less.

            Great diary also.

      • ct says:

        Maybe a T-post. otherwise unfair to fense posts

  3. BlueCat says:

    Excellent, informative and scary diary, but with constructive suggestions for multi-front short and long term solutions. Too bad we see so little of this kind of big picture thinking from our elected officials, either party. Looks like we'll have to rely on more local level efforts like the brainstorming exercise to get things moving to the point of forcing some attention from our supposed political leadership. Wish you, Michael, were part of that leadership. 

  4. Votz says:

    very good article. when it comes to nature nothing is more powerful than wody.według me this is the worst element even looking at it, it can change form.


    profesionalna fotografia wnętrz
  5. ajb says:


    Nice diary. I opens a host of thorny issues, though. I'm interested in your take on a couple.

    Hydro supplies peaking power. Wind and solar much less so. What do you think our best alternatives are? Has anybody paired hydro with solar/wind to pump water uphill during low demand periods to provide peaking power?

    When I hear about things like fallow-lease programs, I cringe. First we supply farmers with highly subsidized water, then we pay them not to use it? We're using something like 85% of our water to raise cows in the desert, right? It's a fine mess we find ourselves in. Is there a way to change this without devastating rural communities? 

    • Voyageur says:

      I too have long dreamed of using these colorado river dinosaurs as pumped storage for wind/solar..  I worked for public service company in the 60s when we built the cabin creek pumped storage project and this could be a way to store 24/7 green power.  Wind maxes out in the evening and could be stored as water to be released at afternoon peak needs.   If we taxpayers are to be tapped again, let's be sure we get something useful in return.

      Finally, growing low value crops like alfalfa with irrigated water should be a hanging offense.  I'd happily support transition subsidies, say for five years, to help convert to high value crops like hemp.  Subsidies could pay for new machinery, etc.  

  6. MichaelBowman says:

    In the case of Glen Canyon, it's purposed more closely to "baseload", providing highly subsidized power to its consumers.  Given that Lake Powell is the "bank" for our water to assure compact compliance in the Lower Basin asset, Lake Meade, I think we should look at re-purposing its mission.  If we woudl bifurcate the energy generation demands from the need to release water in to the Lower Basin for complicance it should create a new and better way to manage the federal asset.  (I'm not trying to oversimplify the situation – but trying to keep it in simple terms). 

    Keep in mind, what's causing everyone to run around crying "the sky is falling" is the magic number "3,450".  That is the mean seal level water level that must be maintained for Glen Canyon to be operational.  That doesnt' mean the lake is dry.  That doesn't mean the lake couldn't continue to be "the bank".  It simply means Glen Canyon can't produce power.  So the proposed solution?  Dry up a portion of the 6 million irrigated acres and let the water run directly in to Lake Powell.  With that comes devastating effects to local agriculture communities.  And yes, you're correct, we'd be paying farmers to not use their already-subsidized federal water. 

    We already do pumped hydro in Colorado at the Twin Lakes project.  It provides peak power for Xcel.  In this Lake Powell scenario I wouldn't envision a pumped storage scenario but one where a defined amount of water had to run through Glen Canyon at a constant flow to deliver power via their long-term energy consumers.  It could accomodate meeting a fluctuating wind/solar design in the six state region.  The good news is that (as Gemany is finding out) as you drastically increase the concentration of wind and solar in a grid they have an inherent natural balance to each other.  In Colorado, for example, an NREL study shows that eastern Colorado wind and San Luis Valley solar have a high correlation of 'balance'.  As these assets increase, the need for load balancing drastically decreases.  As that demand decreases, the demand to release water from our "bank", Lake Powell, also decreases (if it's re-purposed as a load-following/peaker asset as opposed to baseload). 

    The other upside is that if this wind/solar displacement was built out throughout the rural electric system in the six states, those communities that would be devastated by the 'dry up' would now be benefitting from the local jobs and tax base that comes along with the new generation assets.  Just go to previsouly-stressed rural counties like Lincoln County, Colorado to see what 100 megawatts of wind power will do to revive a county budget. 

    It would give the system a significant amount of flexibility that it does not have today.  Everything today is being driven by one thing: "3,450" – and create a firewall of resiliency to help us mitigate the worst effects of the changing climate.



  7. MichaelBowman says:

    The feces is about to hit the fan…

    Feds may order first cuts in water from Colorado River; CU team issues warning to next president

    The CU team sent the report to presidential transition teams for candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton officials said they’d like to discuss the findings, but the Trump team has yet to respond.

    • Duke Cox says:

      Thanks for the update, Michael. While I currently am sitting within the most senior call on the Colorados' water, millions of people downstream from here are not so fortunate.

      Is it fair to say that agriculture is the place where we can make the most savings? When I first came here several decades ago, I was amazed at the inefficiency of the "flood irrigation"  system that dominated the landscape. While many improvements have been made, I still see irrigation inefficiency as the most obvious opportunity for savings.

      Additionally, it would help, I think, if communities understood the impact "sprawl" has on irrigation demands and tried to focus on infill and urban redevelopment in their community planning. It IS a thorny problem that will not be easily resolved.

      • Gray in Mountains says:


      • MichaelBowman says:

        We've come a long way in water efficiency on our farms.  As a kid I moved my share of pipe for our flood irrigation.  Today it's a much-different scene; we may ultimately be forced to sub-surface drip to stay in the game.  We also have to look at crop-switching.  I got interested in industrial hemp nearly 20 years ago because of of my belief we'd have to one day switch to crops that were better stewards of water and other (pesticides, herbicides) resource conservation.  Hemp alone isn't a silver bullet, but does have a lot of positive attributes.  Cities have to play, too; the 'buy and dry' creates havoc in our rural communities.  We have to find ways to build better partnerships. Unfortunately, as you know, Colorado water law "use it or lose it" isn't terribly accommodating to the challenges we face today.  

    • BlueCat says:

      Trump probably thinks it's all part of the Chinese climate change hoax.

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