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Damage at Glen Canyon Dam has Colorado River users concerned

Newly discovered damage to part of the dam holding back America's second-largest reservoir has the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River worried about their ability to get the water they need.

The dam is a giant concrete monolith between towering walls of desert red rock in just south of the Utah-Arizona state line. Inside it, where the bottom of the dam meets the Colorado River, there are four huge pipes.

"When these are turned on, like during a high flow event, the water will shoot three quarters of the way across the river here," said Bob Martin, the U.S. Department of Reclamation's deputy power manager for Glen Canyon Dam. "It's amazing how far this water will shoot out."

But now, with Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the dam, at a near-record low due to climate change and steady demand for water, these pipes could be a lot more important. If Lake Powell continues to shrink, they may be the only way to get water out of it and into the Colorado River.

"In nearly 60 years of operation at Glen Canyon Dam, we didn't need to address the issues that we're facing now," said Wayne Pullan the Bureau of Reclamation's Upper Colorado Basin regional director.

Water managers are now worried because of recently discovered damage was discovered inside those important tubes. It's caused by tiny air bubbles that pop so hard, they can rip away chunks of pipe.

"This is a really big infrastructure problem. And it really has a big impact on how water is managed throughout this whole basin," said Eric Balken, executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute.

Balken says the damaged pipes are only the latest challenge is managing the shrinking Colorado River. Lake Powell stores water from the river's Upper Basin states, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Those states there are legally obligated to send it downstream to the Lower Basin; California, Arizona and Nevada. But even if the pipes are fixed, he says, if they're the only way to get water out of the dam, they can't carry enough to meet that obligation.

"I don't think decision makers are seriously considering enough, the fact that Glen Canyon Dam needs to be completely re-engineered," Balken said.

The dam itself remains structurally sound, and federal water managers plan to repair the pipes late this year or early next. They have not yet offered an estimate of how much it will cost. Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, says fixing them doesn't solve the problem, and much bigger changes are needed.

"We have to stop pretending like we're in a short term drought, and reservoir levels are going to recover," Frankel said.

Right now, states are re-negotiating their agreement for sharing the Colorado River, and Frankel wants them to consider bypassing the dam altogether.