Kyle Dunphey

(Utah News Dispatch) Utah’s reservoirs are still at what the state calls “impressive” levels, with most hovering around 90% capacity — by comparison, statewide levels were a little over half full this time last year.

But Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir, is an outlier. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it’s currently at about 35% capacity.

During a Legislative Water Development Commission meeting in Salt Lake City last week, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources Candice Hasenyager gave lawmakers an update on the state’s water outlook.

“Our reservoirs are about full, we’re at about 90% of our statewide average,” she said. But, she noted Lake Powell as a glaring exception.

“That’s still definitely a concern that we have,” Hasenyager told lawmakers.

In a statement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Lake Powell should not be compared to other reservoirs in the state because of its size and the various policies that dictate its levels.

“Lake Powell is substantially larger, with a live capacity of nearly 25 million acre-feet,” a spokesperson for the bureau said. “This capacity is more than eight times the capacity of Strawberry Reservoir.”

Those levels are often out of the state’s control, and are in part due to the complexity of the Colorado River Basin and the system that allocates water to seven states and Mexico, called the Colorado River Compact.

Through the compact, the bureau “has modified the operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover dams through 2026, to protect these facilities and lake levels if poor hydrologic conditions persist,” the spokesperson said.

Despite Lake Powell appearing to be far behind Utah’s other reservoirs in terms of capacity, the bureau noted that the situation is much better than last year — currently, it sits at about 24 feet higher than last May, and officials say levels will continue to rise, expected to hit about 41% capacity in June. After that, the bureau said it will decline until spring runoff in 2025.

Still, the state’s lack of control over Lake Powell drew some disapproval from outgoing Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who is currently running for governor. Lyman, a fierce critic of the federal government’s presence in Utah, lamented the levels being “set by the Secretary of the Interior.”

“Are we working with the Secretary of the Interior, are we working with the federal government to keep that at a viable level?” Lyman asked. “What we’ve really seen is intentional, keeping that below a viable recreation level and I hope the legislature can influence that decision in the future.”

In response to Lyman’s comments, the Bureau of Reclamation pointed to the bevy of compacts, federal laws, court decisions, contracts and regulatory guidelines that control flows in the Colorado River and levels at Lake Powell.

“Reclamation has a long-standing history of working with all stakeholders in the basin on cooperative agreements that help define operational actions at critical times and to protect the levels at Lake Powell and sustain and protect the Colorado River Basin,” the bureau said.

When asked about Lyman’s comments, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox responded, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

“People can make up stuff all they want. Nobody is deliberately keeping the water levels low at Lake Powell,” the governor said during his monthly PBS news conference on Thursday, calling his gubernatorial opponent’s claim “bonkers.”

Cox pointed to ongoing negotiations among water managers from Colorado River basin states who are working on a new management plan ahead of 2026, when the current guidelines expire.

Cox told reporters the state has been releasing its own water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to ensure the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell can continue generating power. Some of that water was released to Lake Mead, he said — now, the state is hoping to get that water back.

“There are big discussions about where that water goes and where our portions of the water go. We’ve had huge releases from upstream reservoirs that have gone into Lake Powell,” Cox said. “That’s mostly our water. …These are very, very complex negotiations that are going back and forth, and part of the negotiations and what we’re doing right now is making sure we can restore the water that we released.”

‘Exactly what we need’

On Thursday, the Division of Water Resources said over half of the snow from this winter has melted, with recent weather patterns resulting in “optimal spring runoff.”

“A slow warmup is exactly what we need to have a safe and effective spring runoff,” Hasenyager said in a statement. “We still have a good amount of snow in the mountains, so we are hoping for a gradual snow melt.”