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The federal government is taking steps to protect power and water supplies on the Colorado River

The Colorado River after it passes through the Glen Canyon Dam. The water will travel through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
The Colorado River after it passes through the Glen Canyon Dam. The water will travel through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

For the first time ever, the federal government has declared a “Tier 2” water shortage on the Colorado River, which flows nearly 1,450 miles through seven states.

Decades of drought have drained the country’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell in Arizona and Lake Mead in Nevada — to record lows, both only around one-quarter full currently. And with 40 million Southwest U.S. residents depending on the Colorado River for water, the Interior Department has released plans to ensure water and power still reach those who need it.

Ken Runnels operates Antelope Point Marina, a vacation and boating destination on Lake Powell. He’s been watching the lake’s water level drop nearly one foot per week.

“I would say since 2018, it’s lost 70 feet,” he says. “It’s kind of shocking.”

Because of the rapidly-dropping water levels, the shore is nearly impassable for kayakers and boaters. The drought has brought canceled reservations to Runnels’ marina and similar economic hardship to other lake-dependent businesses in the area.

Hydropower — the use of water to create renewable, clean energy — has taken a huge hit. Lake Powell’s water operates turbines below the waterline that generate electricity with no harmful emissions. But the lake is closer than it has ever been to a water level called “minimum power pool.” The lake would have to drop approximately 40 more feet to reach that level, but if it does, the turbines won’t be able to spin at all, eliminating all energy once harvested from them.

“This is clean power. The emissions that we’re producing are water that goes to the Southwest,” says Bob Martin, deputy power manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. He also manages the generators at Lake Powell. “I’ve been in hydropower for a long time, and our mission has been to keep these units running. That’s a pretty sobering thought. These just turning off, the powerhouse being quiet: It’d be heartbreaking to hear this place quiet.”

Turbines in Lake Powell provide power to close to 6 million people in the West, including nearly half the electricity used by the Navajo Tribe. With water levels continuing to drop, tribal leaders are preparing for a future with less hydropower, knowing they’ll have to turn to more expensive, less clean forms of electricity. Srinivasa Venigalla, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, knows most of his customers cannot afford that.

“Everybody in the Southwest is going to be impacted,” Venigalla says. “Everyone has to bear the burden.”

The burden is about to get heavier, as the Interior Department’s designation of a “Tier 2” shortage will cut supply to many places in an effort to conserve what is left of the river’s water. Arizona will have to adapt to losing 21% of its annual share of the river; some state farms won’t receive a drop after cuts have been made.

These cutbacks should be enough to get the region through the year without the power running dry. After that, the future of the river’s hydropower remains uncertain. Martin says people must use water power wisely and do what they can to conserve energy.

“It’s to the point now where people can’t ignore this,” he says. “You’ve got to pay attention.”

Peter O’Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

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