Summer energy demands driven higher as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps more people at home could lead to more water flowing from Glen Canyon Dam into the Colorado River.
That could mean rapidly changing conditions for rafters, anglers, hikers or others on the river in Glen Canyon or the Grand Canyon, officials said.
The higher flows would be released if the Western Area Power Administration initiates an emergency electrical situation, said Marlon Duke, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees Glen Canyon Dam and the electricity it generates.
Flows into the Colorado River fluctuate every year, particularly in the summer, as maintenance issues at other plants result in higher demands at Glen Canyon. That’s a normal process and usually is barely noticeable to people recreating on or along the river.
“This year we have the added operational impacts from COVID-19, so states might have to call on us to generate emergency power,” said Duke. “We are not currently operating in that condition, but we wanted to let people know it’s a possibility. If they’re going to get on the river, they need to be aware and take some precautions.”
In the popular stretch of river between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead, emergency water releases could lead to sudden increases in river flow. Campers should make sure to leave plenty of room for the river to rise and widen, and anglers and boaters should tie their boats at night and be aware that flow could quickly change while they’re on the water.
“If you’re rafting or doing something in the Grand Canyon, what you’d notice is probably going to be minimal unless we really have to spike,” Duke said. “We’re probably talking a handful of inches in vertical flow downriver. So if you’re camped on a shallow sandbar, that’s noticeable. Otherwise, it’s probably not going to make a huge difference in the actual flow of the river.”
Fluctuations will be most noticeable on weekends because current weekend flows are low and steady to support the ongoing Bug Flow experiment downstream of Glen Canyon Dam.
Scientists are studying how changes in the river’s flow affect native insects trying to reproduce. The insect population has dwindled in some areas because of fluctuations in water levels.
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If an emergency situation materializes, Glen Canyon would not be the first power source the Western Area Power Administration would tap, though it’s on the list of possible power sources.
“What we’re more concerned about is, if we get this call we may ramp up a lot faster than we normally would,” Duke said.
Under normal summertime conditions, the water flow increases at a rate of about 4,000 cubic feet per second per hour in response to electricity needs across the West.
The last time an emergency situation was invoked was in 2001, when California residents experienced major blackouts, cutting off electricity to more than one million people. At that time, emergency hydropower water flow was ramped up by 7,000 cubic feet per second.
“If there’s another emergency situation, I don’t think we would go higher than 7,000 and it might not even reach that,” said Duke. “We’ve just been warned that there’s a slightly higher likelihood this year that an emergency situation could happen.”
In 2001, some campers below the Glen Canyon dam had to race to grab coolers floating away and move their tents when the water was released in the middle of the night, said Duke.
“I spoke to a lady who said she camped near the river and it caused some chaos in the camp,” Duke said. There are no known injuries or deaths caused by an unscheduled water release.
So far this year, water releases have been slightly below average. Over the course of a day, flow rates might start as low as 8,000 cubic feet per second, then go up and down with demands from the electrical grid. If normal conditions continue, the Bureau of Reclamation could raise flow to as much as 18,000 cubic feet per second if necessary.
If emergency conditions kick in, “we could potentially go to full power plant capacity, which right now is 20,000 cubic feet per second,” Duke said. “So 18,000 max versus 20,000 max, it’s really not that much of a difference. Every day of every year we are fluctuating the releases to meet our electrical needs.”
The overall amount of water released through the dam won’t increase if power demands climb. The bureau releases an amount of water set by agreements among the seven states that rely on the river. That means if releases are higher in the summer, the bureau will adjust operations so that, by year’s end, it does not exceed the agreed amount.
Still, recreationists need to exercise caution in upcoming months. If the bureau gets a call to go to emergency power generation, officials will notify the National Park Service, which oversees Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park.
Those websites will have the latest water flow updates. Further updated information and current status of water releases are maintained on the bureau’s website.
Erin Stone covers the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send her story tips and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @Erstone7.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.