Lake Powell, producing energy to millions, majorly threatened by drought conditions

The water crisis in Arizona affects all of us. From our tap water to our crops, food, even our electricity.  

The supply is running short, so FOX 10's Steve Nielsen headed to Lake Powell to investigate our ongoing water crisis and uncover what’s being done to safeguard our most important resource in the desert.

Arizona. There is no place like it – anywhere in the world where the beauty of the landscape is crafted quite like this.

For so many visitors, they'll just stop and stare, contemplating everything, but that’s the long view. A critical eye reveals problems decades in the making and solutions in short supply.

Visitors used to hear water flowing at Lake Powell, but now it's just wind blowing across the desert, and approaching Glen Canyon Dam, you'll hear the sound of heavy machinery.

Bob Martin is the Power Manager for the Upper Colorado Region at the Bureau of Reclamation and says they conduct routine maintenance on the doors that let water in and through the Colorado River every seven years.

"When we pull the gate up, it will be absolutely covered in mussels," Martin explained. Invasive mussels, to be exact, but that’s a problem for another day.

For now, the focus is on the water, or the lack thereof.

"If it persists, further reductions are going to have to be made," he said.

RELATED: US to hold back Lake Powell water to protect hydropower amid ongoing droughts

‘Quite a unique situation we’re in’

Lake Powell historical data in 2011 shows the water level was at 3,622 feet. It ebbs and flows a little bit every year, but there's been a steep drop off the last two years. 

As of May 2022, the water level is sitting at 3,522.

How low is that really? Elevation makers on the side of the dam stop 100 feet above where the water sits now.

"The last time we were at this elevation we were filling, so this is quite a unique situation we’re in," Martin said.

Thirty-two feet lower, and the elevation will hit 3,490. That’s the lowest it can be before the dam no longer generates power, which 6,000,000 people depend on.

"It's cheap power. It’s a real bargain for the utilities and its clean power the emissions we produce is water that goes throughout the southwest and without that power that we produce, that has to be replaced somehow through other sources that could be coal or nuclear," Martin said.

Simply put: The more water, the more power.

MORE: Phoenix among those voluntarily losing Colorado River water

The weight of the water pushes it through the turbines in the dam, generating the power and eventually feeding the river on the other side. The water would still have to drop another 150 feet before it can no longer pass through the dam, drying out the river that leads to Lake Mead.

Even at Lake Powell's current levels, the impacts are felt everywhere on the lake.

Evidence of once high water levels are all around if you know what to look for. For example, one of the original boat ramps is completely dry and you have to go a long way down to get to where the marina is now.

A much larger boat ramp now ends in orange barricades and again the marina is still a ways off. Another ramp is being constructed at the current water level to get boats in and out.

There are plans to prevent the levels from dropping even more as hundreds of millions of federal dollars are being invested to create or conserve more water.

In spring 2020, the Bureau of Reclamation announced more water will be released from reservoirs that feed Lake Powell, and less water will be released from Glen Canyon.

"That water is to get us through next year and get us above minimum power pool," Martin said. "So in a sense, if we were a farm, were financing another year's operation hoping the next year's crop is better."

Hope only gets you so far.

But Martin says you can always hope, and recent history backs him up.

"The worst water year we had was 1977 and the best water year we had was 1982-1983 time frame. So that’s a pretty short time to go from worst to best, so we never know what mother nature will throw at us. We have to be wise and see what the patterns have been and adjust water usage accordingly, but it could turn around on us. You just don’t know. You have to have that optimism that next year is going to be better and if it isn’t, you hope the next year after that is better," Martin said.

Cities in Maricopa County have announced plans to reduce water usage by 5%, and farmers brace for tighter restrictions in the desert.

Impact on farmers means an impact on all

Some farmers in our state have seen reduced water for their crops, while other farmers have already run dry.

Like most mornings, Nancy Caywood loads up in her car and drives around her 250-acre farm, Caywood Farms. The dust kicks up behind the back wheels.

In a few days, she says her farm will be even drier.

"This whole farm will be brown and very dusty," she said.

There is just one water source for Caywood Farms in Pinal County, a canal. "That’s the lifeline. That’s like the artery and that’s the veins," she said.

The lifeline – stagnant. The levels are too low at Coolidge Dam for any water to get through, so the San Carlos water has settled below the drain opening to her property.

"We’re done. We are done until we get rain," she said.

Caywood has no idea when the concrete canals that carry the water to her fields will be filled again. Typically, the water flows through these openings to feed her crops, but the flood irrigation pipes to the alfalfa are empty.

"This will be our last cutting. We should get 8 to 10 cuttings a year. Last year we got two cuttings because of the drought," Caywood said.

The farm switched to alfalfa fields a few years ago.

"This is our livelihood," Caywood explained, saying alfalfa uses less water than the cotton they’ve grown for decades and they’ve spent a lot of money to craft ways to conserve water on this farm.

"We spent thousands and thousands of dollars leveling our fields and putting a slight slope in, so the water runs downfield before we ever put a new crop in we go in and prepare the field so its as level as it can be," she said.

Because the water was cut off, in the next two weeks she says all of her crops will go brown and remain dormant, waiting for rain.

"If we don’t get any summer rain I don’t know what's going to happen," she said. "This isn’t just happening to our farm. It's happening to most of Pinal County, Pima County, Maricopa."

Big picture

Looking at the big picture, since 1980, agriculture's use of water is actually down 35% while urban use is up 68%. That being said, irrigated agriculture still takes up 74% of our state's water supply.

Now, with tier 1 water restrictions in place, farmers are going to take on the biggest burden as the state sees a reduction of about 30% of its water supply from the Colorado River.

"It feels like there is a big target on agriculture's back," says Chelsea McGuire with the Arizona Farm Bureau.

She explains that every farm is different and that a lot depends on the source of the farm's water and whether they have wells.

"Every farmer is impacted. There is no farmer in this state growing food or fiber that isn’t seeing direct impacts on production pressures, stress because of the drought," McGuire said.

While nearly every farm has seen some reduction, cities have not mandated conservation. Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa and Phoenix have announced early drought stages, which means more education efforts, but they have not mandated water conservation for residents.

"We do feel like we're taking a huge hit and industry is being encouraged to come to our area which requires more housing and more people in our area and were in a serious drought. So when you have cities asking for water conservation, pretty soon the asking is going to start turning into requiring," Caywood said.

This year, Governor Doug Ducey pledged a billion dollars to find water solutions.

"This is the first time I've seen true, serious discussion and serious resource dedication to the potential for water augmentation," McGuire said in response.

So, how dire is this situation right now?

In response, McGuire says, "I don’t know that it can be overstated. Water is of course the most important resource all of us use."

Caywood isn’t contractually allowed to pump for water at her farm and has already paid for this year's water despite dry canals. She feels like a canary in a coal mine for other farmers that still have water from sources like Lake Powell.

"If we don’t start getting rain and we don’t start getting snow pack, they're going to dry up just like we are," she said. "I don’t know if people realize how serious it is."

She hopes the state's billion-dollar investment will provide long-term solutions. But, in the short term, all she can hope for is a wet monsoon season.

"We have to always be optimistic we’ll get some rain. They’re forecasting a wetter summer, and you grab on to that with optimism and will green our alfalfa up," Caywood said.