WATCH: Sen. Kelly’s Bill to Manage Drought Impacts on Glen Canyon Hydropower Customers Gets Hearing in Senate 

Yesterday, in a Senate Subcommittee on Water & Power hearing, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly discussed his new bill that would support Arizona communities during this historic drought by preventing the  U.S. Department of the Interior from charging them operations and maintenance (O&M) fees for dams that are unable to generate hydropower due to low water levels.   

Hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam, the site of the nation’s second largest man-made reservoir, has decreased by more than 20 percent over 23 consecutive years of drought. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts a one-in-four chance that the dam will hit minimum power pool next year. In the Colorado River Basin, Reclamation sets operations and maintenance (O&M) rates and recovery costs for its hydropower projects, which is collected from ratepayers, including Arizona localities, by the Western Area Power Administration.  

“These are irrigation districts and tribes and local governments who depend on affordable carbon-free renewable energy. But under Reclamation law, these customers are still on the hook for paying capital and operations and maintenance costs even when the dam can’t generate electricity,” said Kelly in the hearing. “Today’s hearing includes a bill that I introduced, Senate Bill 4232, that would direct the federal government to waive these obligations.” 

In the Senate, Kelly has maintained a focus on combating western drought and water issues. In October, Kelly requested and chaired a hearing on western drought after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued new water level projections for Lake Mead and Lake Powell that triggered the first-ever drought restrictions on the Colorado River. Kelly was one of the 22 members of the Senate bipartisan group that negotiated and shaped the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which became law in November. Kelly played a leadership role in drafting the western water and drinking water portions of the legislation.  Last week, he also introduced the STREAM Act, a bill also covered in yesterday’s hearing that would increase water supply and modernize water infrastructure throughout the West.  

Kelly speaks to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Touton. 

For a full transcript of Kelly’s remarks and exchange with the witness, see below. To watch the exchange, click HERE. 

Kelly: Thank you, Madam Chair.  

Commissioner Touton, very good to see you again. As we discussed a number of times and as you know, the West is facing the worst drought in 1,200 years and Arizona’s on the front lines of this megadrought. It’s been going on for over 20 years now. Low precipitation and dry soil are causing water levels and Lake Mead and Lake Powell to reach their lowest levels of record. Since they were first filled up. 
The lakes are the nation’s two largest man-made reservoirs and store water for more than 40 million people in seven different states the Bureau of Reclamation predicts a one in four chance that Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell will hit minimum power pool next year. That’s at 3,490 feet above sea level. And that’s the elevation where the dam cannot generate electricity anymore. Glen Canyon Dam provides power to 5 million people and six States, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. 
We were about 30 feet from minimum power pool this year, but the lower Basin agreed to forgo some water deliveries from Powell and Reclamation agreed to release water from the Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah. And Commissioner, thank you for your leadership there and it’s bought us some time, but we will likely be in this same exact situation next year. And many of reclamations dams and the Colorado River Basin generate hydropower that is purchased by public entities. These are irrigation districts and tribes and local governments who depend on affordable carbon-free renewable energy. But under Reclamation law, these customers are still on the hook for paying capital and operations and maintenance costs even when the dam can’t generate electricity. Today’s hearing includes a bill that I introduced, Senate Bill 4232, that would direct the federal government to waive these obligations. 
Madam Chair, I would like to add to the record comments from federal hydropower customers and environmental stakeholders regarding this bill without objection. This bill doesn’t amend any existing Reclamation statutes and it ensures that conservation programs are funded regardless of a waiver.  Admittedly not all dams have the same challenge as Glen Canyon Dam, although that could eventually change as the environment continues to warm. 
We will be gathering some stakeholder input to fine-tune this bill, because it does cover a very large area and ultimately my hope is that this bill sparks a discussion here in Washington and across the Basin on how to solve this problem. And I look forward to working with my colleagues on this bill.  

So, Commissioner Touton, in the case of Glen Canyon Dam, these public entities, they still need to buy power if we reach minimum power pool and can’t get any power from the dam. 
Will that replacement power be more expensive and less likely to be carbon free? 

Touton: So one of the benefits of our system, our hydropower system is the ability to produce power at low cost. And so should we not produce hydropower, and they go into the market, those entities will have to pay more. 

Kelly: Do you know what multiple more?  

Touton: I don’t want to quote that for you. It Is certainly a significant multiple. I can get that for the record.  

Kelly: And it does change? 

Touton: Yeah. 

Kelly: You know, some of the operations and maintenance fees are set by the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration. Can you work with them and my office to make improvements to the bill? To make sure we get this right?  

Touton: Absolutely. We have a great working relationship with Administrator LeBeau and look forward to working with you on this legislation. 

Kelly: Well, thank you. And what kind of challenges between states should we expect in the Colorado River Basin as we have declining hydropower generation? Is this something that Reclamation has considered? 

Touton: Absolutely. Lake Powell, that facility, is 80% of the Colorado River storage project. So it’s significant part of the CRSP system along with Flaming Gorge, Aspinall, and the Navajo unit. So, this is something that we take seriously, because as you mentioned, the hydropower produced there goes to rural communities, goes to tribal entities, and it is a part of our mission is to deal with hydropower. We took those actions, working with the states and the stakeholders and the tribes, with 500,000 acre-feet as well as the 480,000 that were holding back from Powell to send to Mead. But as you said Senator, those are short-term fixes. We could be in the same spot nine months from now. What I am hopeful about is in this Basin, which separates every other basin in the west, is that they come together, ground up, and with us to come up with solutions. But we got to do it now.  

Kelly: Yeah, we’ve got to work on it, you know, fortunately, you know, thanks to this committee and other committees, there was additional funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill to deal with this problem. You mentioned hope, and not with regards to the climate. I mean, we can’t hope that this drought ends. We would all like it to end, but it’s impossible to anticipate when that would happen, if ever. Now, I’d say the good news is, we are, as a country, we’re pretty good at engineering our way out of some problems. We just have to focus on it and not get behind the curve. So, thank you Commissioner.