A plumbing problem at Glen Canyon Dam poses a new threat to the Colorado River system – Science News (Trending Perfect)


ATLANTA (AP) — Plumbing problems at a dam holding back the second-largest reservoir in the United States are raising concerns about future water delivery problems to southwestern states supplied by the Colorado River.

Federal officials recently reported damage to four pipes known as “river outlet works” at Glen Canyon Dam on the Utah-Arizona border. The dam is responsible for generating hydroelectric power and releasing water stored in Lake Powell downstream to California, Arizona, Nevada, and eventually Mexico.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages major dams in the Colorado River system, is evaluating issues with Glen Canyon Dam when Lake Powell reaches low levels. These include four-pipe problems, such as sedimentation and cavitation, when small air bubbles form as water passes through the plumbing. Cavitation can cause tears in the metal and other mechanical damage.

The Colorado River provides water to seven U.S. states, nearly 30 Native American tribes and two states in Mexico. Years of overuse by farms and cities, and stubborn drought exacerbated by climate change, mean that today's water flows across the 1,450-mile (about 2,336 km) river is much less than in previous decades.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which store water and are used for recreation and power generation, serve as barometers of the health of the Colorado River. In recent years, it fell to historic lows and then recovered somewhat thanks to recent above-average winter precipitation and water conservation.

Structural problems at Glen Canyon Dam, first reported by the Arizona Daily Star, could complicate how federal officials manage the river in coming years when hydrologists and others expect Lake Powell to drop below current levels. The damaged pipes are located below the larger pipes known as pens that normally carry tank water. Smaller pipes that form “river outlets” allow water to be released at lower reservoir levels.

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Lake Powell is currently at about 32% capacity.

Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile (541-kilometer) canal system that carries Colorado River water to Arizona cities, raised the issue at a meeting last month related to the river.

“We have received some difficult news from the Bureau of Reclamation,” Bormann said, adding that CAP will work with Reclamation to investigate the issues in the coming months.

J.B. Hamby, president of the Colorado River Board in California, said the dam's design leaves open the possibility that huge amounts of water in Lake Powell could be trapped below lower elevations.

He said an engineering solution would be the best way forward because other options might include additional water shutoffs to the states.

Doug McEachern, communications director for the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said his agency is working with Reclamation to figure out “technical fixes, if any.”

If federal officials can't fix the pipes, McEachern said his agency expects the reclamation process to not put the burden of more water outages solely on Arizona, California and Nevada, which make up the so-called lower river basin. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming make up its upper basin.

Separately, states and tribes that depend on the Colorado River are working on a long-term agreement to share the dwindling resource after current rules and guidelines governing how its waters are divided expire in 2026.

Environmental groups have warned for years that water levels in Lake Powell could reach a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer be used to generate hydroelectric power or release water downstream.

“What's at risk? Water supplies for 25 million people and major agricultural producers,” said Kyle Roernick, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, an environmental advocacy group.

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