Hoover Dam hydroelectric power is threatened by West’s historic drought

The changes are “astounding to see,” Kristen Averyst, senior climate advisor to Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, told CNN. “If people don’t think climate change is impacting them here and now, just go to Lake Mead and take a look around, because that paints a pretty clear picture of what we face when it comes to change. climatic “.

Stretching across the Colorado River on the border of Nevada and Arizona, the huge Hoover Dam forms and holds water from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country. It can produce about 2,080 megawatts of hydroelectricity – enough electricity for about 1.3 million Americans each year, according to the National Park Service – for California, Arizona, and Nevada, as well as Native American tribes.

But climate change-induced drought and the Colorado River’s overuse of water are pushing Lake Mead lower and threatening the dam’s hydroelectricity. The decline in water flow cut the dam’s power generation capacity by nearly half – about 1,076 megawatts – in June.

The height of the water in Lake Mead is approximately 1,040 feet above sea level. At 950 feet, the Hoover Dam will be at the lowest point to be able to produce power, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation. Without the electricity from the dam, Southwestern energy suppliers will have to use fossil fuel energy to fill the void.

It is an unprecedented challenge among the many officials of the US Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Hoover Dam operations, as the West runs out of water.

US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton stressed testimony to Congress in June that, despite the agency’s ongoing efforts to conserve water, much more needs to be done as climate change strains the country. Colorado River system.

“The system is at a tipping point,” Touton said in his statement. “No amount of funding can fully compensate for the severe shortage of rainfall occurring across the American West this year. We will experience inevitable reductions in farm water supplies and hydroelectric power generation.”

‘Dead Pool’

Averyst vacationed in Lake Mead growing up – wakeboarding and waterskiing were some of her favorite activities. His great-grandfather was also one of the workers who built the dam, he said, which was completed in 1934. Its iconic U-shape, almost as thick as two football fields, has become a symbol of American hard work during the Great Depression.

But the lake isn’t the same anymore, he said. When the water drains, the muddier coast appears. “The way I describe it is that it’s not shaped like a regular glass, it’s shaped like a martini glass,” Averyst said, so the lower the lake gets, the faster the shoreline recedes.

The retreating water means that it takes an hour of waiting just to put a boat on the lake due to all the ramps and docks closed. Previously sunken boats are exhibited on the barely bare coast. A decades-old intake valve, a WWII-era ship, and human remains have shockingly emerged from the depths.
The Bureau of Reclamation predicts there is a one in five chance that the lake could drop to 1,000 feet by 2025, which is only 50 feet above the minimum level needed for the Hoover Dam to generate electricity. And it’s only 105 feet above the level of the lake’s dead pool, where water doesn’t flow freely through the dam and generates power. Instead, energy would be needed to pump water through the dam.

“We have already seen power generation at the Hoover Dam drop by about 30-40% from its maximum capacity over the past 10 years,” John Jontry, electrical operations and planning manager with the Metropolitan Water District, told CNN. of Southern California.

Jontry’s agency receives approximately 1 million megawatt-hours of electricity annually from the Hoover Dam, which it uses to power pumps along the Colorado River Aqueduct to supply water from Lake Havasu – a reservoir on the border between Arizona and California – southern California.

The Hemenway boat ramp at the marina on Lake Mead.
A previously sunken boat on Saddle Island in Lake Mead.
But water officials and hydrologists predicted this: “The surprise was when it came, not that it did,” Averyst said.

That’s why about 10 years ago, the reclamation office made improvements to the Hoover Dam, including replacing the turbines that drive the electricity generators. The five new turbines have been designed to operate across a wider range of lake elevations, particularly at lower levels.

“As Lake Mead goes down, we will continue to see a gradual decline in (power) production,” Jontry said.

According to the office, states across the Colorado River Basin in Mexico, tribes and water and power authorities are currently negotiating plans to conserve water and prevent Lake Mead from reaching the “dead pool,” also stabilizing the energy production.

More unprecedented challenges to come

Reclamation officials and local electricity and water agencies have already taken unprecedented measures to address the escalating crisis. Due to declining water levels on Lake Mead, the government first announced a Level 1 shortage on the Colorado River last year, causing water cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

A similar challenge faces Lake Mead’s upstream neighbor, Lake Powell, the country’s second largest reservoir. Water levels at Lake Powell are about 44 feet from dropping to the point that the Glen Canyon Dam would not be able to generate hydroelectricity.

To keep the Glen Canyon Dam running, the reclamation office announced in May that it was taking emergency measures to release more water from upstream reservoirs, holding back water releases from Lake Powell itself, which typically sends the water downstream to Lake Mead.
An indicator for the Lake Mead waterline in 2008. Since then the lake has fallen over 50 feet.

“When both Lake Mead and Lake Powell were filled, it was about making sure there was water for the western United States, but it was also about making sure there was energy available for the West,” Averyst said. “And so what the federal government is facing right now is ensuring that we continue to have water where it is needed, but also that we are able to have enough water in each of the tanks to generate power.”

As the Bureau of Reclamation prepares for a critical 24-month forecast report that will determine the next round of water cuts, its biggest goal is to prevent Lake Mead from reaching the “dead well” by continuing talks and negotiations. with.

Averyst and officials who spoke to CNN say there is hope it won’t get to that point and that it’s just a matter of adaptation. With more infrastructure funding coming from the federal government, she said it’s an opportunity to rethink the current system and find ways to manage and adapt to a hot future.

“We have always been innovative and I think there is a lot of room for both water and energy conservation,” he said. “The problem with climate change is that it will impact and, in many cases, impact our lifestyles, and we will have to adapt and change the way we do things, because this is what we have done and we have to live with it. with the consequences “.

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