The federal government announced Tuesday unprecedented measures to increase the water level in Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir on the Colorado River. The reservoir, which supplies water and power to millions of people in seven states, has plunged to 24% of total capacity and the lowest level in over half a century.
Amid the worst drought in 1,200 years, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a plan to release approximately 500k acre-feet (kaf) of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, located upstream, that will flow into Lake Powell. Another 480k kaf that would have been released from Lake Powell will be retained in the artificial lake on the Utah-Arizona border.
Such an emergency action is in response to Powell's water surface elevation at 3,522 feet and quickly dropping. A level below 3,490 feet would mean the Glen Canyon Dam hydropower plant would no longer be operational and could disrupt power and water to millions of people.
"The measure protects hydropower generation, the facility's key infrastructure, and the water supply for the city of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation," the federal agency said.
This will buy federal and state officials 12 months as it considers additional measures to prevent Lake Powell from slipping under the disastrous level of 3,490 feet.
"We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River Basin, but the conditions we see today and the potential risk we see on the horizon demand that we take prompt action," Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science, told reporters.
CNN spoke with Bryan Hill, general manager of the public power utility in Page, Arizona, compared the water crisis at Lake Powell to judgment day.
"We're knocking on the door of judgment day ... Judgment day being when we don't have any water to give anybody, Hill previously said.
The decision comes two weeks after federal officials weighed measures to hold back water at the dam to protect the hydropower plant at Glen Canyon Dam. Their action response time of just two weeks suggests a water crisis is underway.
Recently, Tom Buschatzke, Arizona's top water official, warned of an impending water crisis. He said: "We're going to have to learn to live with less water."
With summer in a month and a half, federal government meteorologists are already warning that severe drought conditions could worsen. US Drought Monitor data shows much of the US West is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions.
Several counties in Southern California have already declared a water shortage emergency for the first time, restricting residents from outdoor watering. This could broaden to more states that depend on the Colorado River as Lake Powell and Lake Mead (more downstream) experience record low levels. A megadrought in the western part of the country won't be abating anytime soon.