Colorado River Water Shortage in 2023?
Water and drought in the Southwest, especially the Colorado River have gotten a lot of attention lately, and deservedly so. Millions of people live in desert cities that depend on Colorado River basin water and the hydroelectric power that it generates. Here at Western River Expeditions, we also depend upon rivers flowing downstream to create exciting and memorable whitewater rafting experiences for our guests. While we are in a protracted drought, all the rivers we raft will continue to flow downstream to provide critical culinary and agricultural water, and hydroelectric power. We just need to learn to use it more wisely and to make do with less water than was historically thought available.
To us, lower water flows are not a new problem. For the last 22 years as we have been running rivers on the same reduced volumes that have been flowing into Lake Powell before continuing downstream through the Grand Canyon to quench the demands below. Since 1961 we have been running rafts on the low flow releases that originally filled Lake Powell in the early 1960s, the record flows of 1983 and 1984, and the now 22 years of lower flows that have partially emptied these reservoirs again.
Ironically, the issue of water conservation is a message we have been sharing with our guests for over 30 years now, as we have watched it worsen to the point that it finally is receiving the media attention that it deserves. Excessive demand for water in the West has been one of the slowest crises ever to unfold and finally grab attention. The Colorado River drought crisis in the west is about overuse, not whether the rivers will still be flowing.
Lake Powell, just above the Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, directly below the Grand Canyon are two of the most publicized concerns. There is a string of reservoirs on the Colorado River below Lake Mead. The system capacity of all of the reservoirs in the system is currently 33% and is projected to finish in 2023 at 34%. They were all effectively full in the late 1990s.
Over the 30 years it took to progressively lower these reservoirs we have continually been running rafts through Cataract Canyon, the section of the Colorado River that runs into Lake Powell, and on Desolation Canyon, which is the Green River just before it joins the Colorado and enters Cataract Canyon and empties into Lake Powell. Yes, these rivers have been running on lower flows, but these flows have been perfectly suited for recreational rafting trips, and will continue to be. In fact, these slightly lower flows have not only become the new norm over the last 30 years but also furnish some nice advantages like broad sandy beaches, decreased insects, and a more established river channel.
Grand Canyon Rafting Regulated Flows:The Colorado River flow through the Grand Canyon is regulated by pre-planned releases of water at Glen Canyon Dam from the waters of Lake Powell. The release has been set for 2023 and 2024 and will be no lower than the 2022 release, which was set at 7.0 maf (million acre feet). Had this amount been released in the past 20 years, instead of the average 8.3 maf that was released, these lakes would still be full as the amount of inflow has averaged over 7.0 maf into Lake Powell over the past 22 years. Even in drought shortage years, the amount of water released through these large desert rivers is an exciting volume of water for running rivers.
It is also important to keep in mind that these dams were built to control flood waters and to maintain steady, predictable releases. The water which flows through the Grand Canyon empties into Lake Mead, the reservoir which was created by the Hoover Dam. At full capacity, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the largest reservoirs in the United States. While it is true there is a drought, there are still two of the West’s mightiest rivers flowing through the southwest - plenty of water for your rafting trip in Moab Utah, or through the Grand Canyon.
Remarkably, 40 million people depend on Colorado River water, and 4.5 million people depend on hydroelectric power generated from the length of the Colorado River system! 750,000 people directly depend on hydroelectric power being generated from Glen Canyon dam, which creates Lake Powell. If the river were shut off, so would water and power to a lot of cities and agricultural enterprises in California and in the Southwest. Our society depends on water flowing downstream every bit as much as we do for our exciting whitewater rafting trips.
In 1992, the Grand Canyon Protection Act was established to protect downstream resources. It mandates that the Western Area Power Association maintain flows that protect downstream resources in the Canyon. These flows moderated “peaking power” flows that were used in the 1970s and 1980s to maximize power generation revenue. Regardless of the time of day, there is a finite amount of water that flows through the system. Before this legislation, we use to see daily flows fluctuating from 5,000-30,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Paradoxically, once this Act was passed and more steady flows established, the low flows we have seen during this protracted drought have been significantly higher than the 5,000 cfs we used to see every day! The ability of these dams to regulate the river and provide steady flows is phenomenal and beneficial for both preserving environmental resources and visitor experiences.
Cataract Canyon Rafting Un-regulated flows:The Colorado River flow through Cataract Canyon is not regulated by a dam. Snow melt and precipitation throughout the year affect water levels here. Peak run-off is typically late May-mid June. Because water levels may fluctuate, we are able to choose the best boats for current water conditions. Some rapids may be washed over in high water levels, while new rapids may appear in lower water levels. We love the flexibility to match the boats to water conditions on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, which makes rafting fun at any level. In 2023, we are looking forward to some exciting, high flows as the snowpack is far above average!
Regardless of which trip or time of year you select, we look forward to sharing your upcoming rafting experience with you!