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A shrinking Lake Powell is causing costly problems for Page, Arizona

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Few people thought that water supply would be a problem for Page, Ariz. The little town sits on the shore of Lake Powell, America's second-largest reservoir. And that's the town that built the Glen Canyon Dam. But the drought on the Colorado River is so bad that Page now faces a reckoning. From member station KUNC, here's Alex Hager.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: A storm sweeps across the red and white sandstone canyons carved by the Colorado River.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

HAGER: On the edge of a cliff towering hundreds of feet above the water, Tobyn Pilot walks across a crunchy patch of red dirt and pulls out his keys. Pilot is with the city of Page's Water Department, and he's opening the door to a tiny but important wood-paneled shed. Here, water from the lake is pulled all the way up to the top of the cliff to serve the 7,000 people who live in Page.

TOBYN PILOT: This is the town's water, comes right through the shack. (Laughter). Crazy to think.

HAGER: Page has always taken its water from Lake Powell, but now the reservoir is shrinking so fast, the pipe that used to be under hundreds of feet of water is in danger of popping above the water line. That would leave Page and a neighboring Navajo chapter dry.

BRYAN HILL: They never anticipated the lake actually dropping down to a level where they weren't going to be able to generate, or Page was going to struggle to get water.

HAGER: Page utility manager Bryan Hill's job is to keep taps flowing. And he's stuck with historic missteps, both recent and decades old.

HILL: That just simply wasn't anticipated. That's why we're scrambling to make a design mod down there now.

HAGER: Design mod means reworking the pipes inside the dam. Right now, welders are putting together new pipes to connect a backup intake to Page. But Hill says Page won't have peace of mind until there's a second straw, a little further upstream that would provide redundancy. It's possible, but it won't come cheap.

HILL: It's roughly a $46 million project. And as you can imagine, you're not going to get that kind of money out of 3,500 water customers. That's just not going to happen.

HAGER: Hill says the federal government should be on the hook for that help. After all, the city of Page is only here because workers building the dam in the 1950s needed somewhere to live. Hill says that means federal officials bear some responsibility for making sure the city has adequate water supply. The federal agency in charge of the dam says it's committed to working with the city of Page and offering assistance but hasn't yet drawn up plans to distribute the $4 billion it got from the Inflation Reduction Act. The new challenges in Page are a warning sign to Kathryn Sorensen.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: Climate change means that the flows of the Colorado River will continue to diminish.

HAGER: Sorensen is the former water department director for Phoenix, one of the big cities that draws heavily from the Colorado. Now she researches water policy at Arizona State University.

SORENSEN: And so for those communities that are dependent on Colorado River, they need to be looking around at their infrastructure, their alternative supplies and developing means to be able to continue safe, reliable deliveries at the tap.

HAGER: She's talking about roughly 40 million people there in places like Los Angeles and Denver. Sorensen says it's not just climate change putting city water supplies at risk. The water delivery system in the southwest is getting old.

SORENSEN: So I think you're going to see pressures from both sides. And I think that that might be really humbling for some of our communities.

HAGER: And whether the money comes from federal coffers or increased water rates, Sorensen says small towns and big cities alike will need to react quickly to steel their systems against climate change. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in Page, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "CIRCLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager