LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Alternatives for major modifications to Glen Canyon Dam surfaced Tuesday at a public meeting, the first acknowledgment by the federal government that the dam could require changes.

But water conservation advocates say changes to the dam that would delay Lake Powell hitting “deadpool” status are likely too late. Completing any of the alternatives would likely be a 10-year process of environmental impact statements and construction, according to Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

Deadpool is reached when the river is too low to get through any outlet around, through or under a dam.

FILE – In this Nov. 19, 2012, file photo, water is released into the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, File)

A set of alternatives presented by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Tuesday show details of new possibilities that range from new intakes to new hydropower construction to a major investment in solar and wind power production. Drilling new holes lower in the dam carries the risk of damage to the dam, and only buys some time as climate change takes its toll on the Colorado River. The document carries the name of Nick Williams, Upper Colorado Basin Power Manager.

No bypass option included

But the full set of alternatives presented by Reclamation is missing a choice presented this summer by Frankel’s group and several other agencies: A bypass at the base of the river that would carry water past the dam and eliminate the deadpool possibility.

The document that was delivered today is an appraisal, Frankel said. The studies haven’t even started.

“This would be a fantastic study if the year was 2012 or 2013,” Frankel said. But now, there’s no time to complete NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) studies and a formal Environmental Impact Statement. Frankel said that process alone would last five years. “Sometime in 2027, they could start construction,” he said.

And Frankel doesn’t think there’s a scientist who knows the Colorado River Basin who would say Lake Powell won’t hit deadpool by the time construction would be done.

That’s a startling statement about the Colorado River, but a reality that was merely delayed by the relative abundance of water — last decade. Climate change is behind a drought that started in the year 2000, and since then the Colorado River Basin has 20% less water, Frankel said.

An above-average snowpack this year or sometime down the line isn’t enough to make a significant difference for a long-term problem.

Bureau of Reclamation alternatives

A summary of the alternatives in the document:

  1. Drill new holes through the dam
    • (1A) A low-level adjustment to intakes, replacing turbines with “low head runners.”
    • (1B)A mid-level adjustment to four intakes, allowing the penstocks to receive water from about 100 feet lower and continuing power production with the turbines that are in place.
  2. Building a new powerplant to be fed by a bypass tubes that deliver water further downriver.
  3. Building new powerplants with new feeds:
    • (3A) Building a new underground powerplant fed by a tunnel through rock adjacent to the north side of the dam.
    • (3B) Building a new powerplant in the riverbed, fed by a tunnel through rock ajacent to the south side of the dam.
  4. Further adjustments to water flows out of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam, maximizing power production in low-flow conditions.
  5. Refining the ability to produce power at minimum power pool (MPP).
  6. Investments in solar or wind power production to augment Glen Canyon production.

Alternatives 5 and 6 don’t appear to address an important question: How to ensure there’s enough water flowing downstream to meet the requirements in the Colorado River Compact, also called “The Law of the River.” That 1922 contract grants water rights to each of the Colorado River Basin states, and failure to live up to delivery requirements is likely to result in lawsuits.

‘Antique plumbing’ at Glen Canyon

If the level of Lake Powell drops below elevation 3,550, it threatens not only the power production of the dam — it also means the dam is unable to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of river water downstream. That’s the amount assigned by the compact.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said Tuesday, “This proposal underscores what we highlighted for the public late last year: Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing is a liability. Future low-level conditions jeopardize power generation and downstream deliveries to places like Las Vegas. The Bureau is putting forth an array of proposals to consider how we will generate power and the potential options for delivering water downstream in the future. Any project moving forward would require congressional approval and federal environmental review. We are a long ways away from this becoming a reality.”

In August, conservationists spelled out the dam’s limits. Those limits weren’t public knowledge until that presentation.

How long did they know?

Now, Frankel wonders how long the Bureau of Reclamation has been sitting on that information. He said evidence that the problem was known in 2012 — and perhaps earlier — has been found in engineering records. “We really want to know if a previous Bureau of Reclamation tried to notify the Interior Department,” he said.

“But this is a monumental day in that the conversation is beginning,” Roerink said. “What remains to be seen is this: Is power generation more important in the eyes of federal water managers, or are Lower Basin deliveries more important in the long run? But there are many in the nation who believe that the current conditions at Glen Canyon Dam are screaming out loud: That region of the Colorado River is not an industrial zone.”