How water levels of Lake Powell are tied at the turbines to ski lifts
Just how much more water can be drawn from the rivers that originate near Winter Park, Breckenridge, and Aspen, as well as Crested Butte, Telluride, and Durango, before the electrical supply powering the ski lifts gets wobbly?
That sounds a bit like a zen koan, but in fact, it’s at the heart of a discussion now underway in Colorado. The Colorado River that originates in those mountain towns is already heavily tapped by local farms. Then there’s the matter of the giant straws that convey 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet per year to Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities at the base of the Rocky Mountains as well as other farms on the Great Plains.
There’s only so much water in the Colorado River, and its use is strictly governed by interstate compacts: a 1948 compact apportioning use among the headwaters states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. More importantly, those four upper-basin states are obligated to allow roughly half the water in the Colorado River to flow downstream from Lake Powell and through the Grand Canyon, to the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as to Mexico.
Just how much water remains to be developed in Colorado, whether for ski areas, cannabis farms, or Front Range cities? Nobody really knows.
But an upcoming $50,000 study funded by several organizations from the Western Slope of Colorado aims to get a better answer. Aspen Journalism reports that water organizations on Colorado’s Eastern Slope also want to get involved.
Chris Treese, the external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, recently explained the dynamics. If Lake Powell drops so low it can’t produce hydropower, he said, it also means the dam will not be able to release enough water to meet its rolling 10-year obligation under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.
“The earlier crisis point—and I don’t think that’s overstating it – is when Lake Powell falls to a level that is below the point where power can be produced through the dam,” Treese explained. That, in turn, means there’s too little water in Lake Powell to release the 8.23 million acre-feet required to meet the compact obligations.
Aspen Journalism explains that this call for a more definitive study has been spurred by a disagreement among river basins on Colorado’s Western Slope. The Yampa-White River Basin (includes Steamboat Springs) wants to reserve the right to dam and divert more water. The Gunnison Basin (includes Crested Butte) is concerned it will hasten what is called a “compact call,” or reduced water use in all basins.
And about that electricity? The turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, produce massive amounts of electricity, along with those at other dams in the West. This low-cost (and non-carbon) electricity is then distributed to utilities that serve many of the ski towns in Colorado and other states, too.