President’s Column – August 2002

Title: RMAG—Gas Farming Without Water

Author: John Robinson

Publication: The Outcrop, August 2002, p. 3, 23

I recently returned from a houseboating trip on Lake Powell. The trip has been an annual adventure for my family for 14 years. Over the years, we have watched the lake elevation go up and down in large and small increments. This year the lake level was at an elevation of 3644 feet, which is 56 feet below full pool of 3700 feet. Every year before our trip, I track the inflow, release and lake level on the Bureau of Reclamation website (www.usbr.gov) to predict which canyons and beaches will be the best to visit. It’s remarkable how variations in lake level change the shoreline and canyon configurations. When we arrived at the lake it looked low, but it has been lower during the drought years of 1976-77 and 1989-91 (see graph).

Paraphrasing the USBR report on their website, inflow to Lake Powell during May, 2002 was the lowest ever recorded during the month of May since closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, and was only 14% of average. Only 312,000 acre-feet of inflow reached the lake, breaking the previous low of 328,000 acre-feet in may, 1977. Inflow to Lake Powell has been significantly below average throughout 2002. Inflow to the lake in January, February, March, and April of 2002 was 69, 53, 45 and 39 percent of average, respectively. June is expected to have inflows at 18% of average.

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The Bureau report goes on to say that drier than average conditions have prevailed for the past three years in the Colorado River Basin. Both water years 2000 and 2001 were below average with inflows into Lake Powell of 62% and 59% of average, respectively. Three consecutive years of below average inflow have reduced water storage in the lake to approximately 16.5 million acre-feet (68 percent of capacity). Based on an inflow forecast, Lake Powell elevation will decrease in elevation during 2002. The current projection is that by the end of the 2002, the water elevation will be below 3,620 feet (80 feet below full pool) which would be near history-making lows. Yearly releases of water below the dam have been fairly constant through the years, other than the flood years of the mid 80s, and are regulated by provisions of the Colorado Compact Commission established in 1922, and the 1970 Criteria for Coordinated Long-Range Operations of Colorado River Reservoirs.

I downloaded a graph which presents Lake Powell elevation and superimposed average annual natural gas prices and El Niño Phase intervals. Mike Wilson established a good correlation between gas price and El Niño Phases in his paper in the RMAG Gas in the Rockies guidebook. Each El Niño Phase is a change in weather that should result in a change in lake level. It would follow that lake level should relate to gas price. I was hopeful that I could predict gas prices by going to Lake Powell, but so far, I don’t see that correlation.

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