The Southwest has been in a water crisis since the late 1990s. In 2017, it had to ration its water supply due to the lack of rainfall and snowpack. Now, with climate change threatening to make things worse, some are calling for more drastic measures.
The Colorado River irrigates crops, generates electricity, and supplies drinking water to 40 million people. However, as its supply decreases, a catastrophe is looming.
CNN’s Drew Kann, Renée Rigdon, and Daniel Wolfe contributed to this article. The date is August 21, 2021.
Maricopa is a city in Arizona. Who has water and who doesn’t defines success and failure for farmers in central Arizona’s deserts. Dan Thelander is still among the haves at the moment.
Thelander spreads a map over the board room table at a Pinal County municipal office.
Thelander shows out tracts of property where he, his brother, son, and nephew produce cotton, alfalfa, and a variety of other crops on the patchwork of brown desert and green farmland in front of us.
Dan Thelander, a second-generation farmer in Maricopa, Arizona, stands beside a new watering system in one of his alfalfa fields. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
He gets around half of the water he needs to cultivate his property from ancient aquifers under the desert bottom. The second half, on the other hand, begins hundreds of miles away at the Colorado River’s headwaters.
On its journey into Mexico and the Gulf of California, this river system feeds 40 million people in seven western states and Mexico, as well as irrigating more than 5 million acres of agriculture.
The river supplies 90 percent of the water in Las Vegas, 82 percent in Tucson, and approximately 66 percent in San Diego. The river supplies a large part of the water needed in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver, and experts believe these growing metropolises would not have been feasible without it.
However, a catastrophe is brewing in the Southwest, and farmers, scientists, water managers, and policymakers are becoming more concerned.
Overuse of the river has long been acknowledged by water management. However, demand for the river’s water has often outstripped availability during the past two decades. The river’s flows have decreased by around 20% since 2000, compared to the 20th century average, owing in part to the human-caused climate catastrophe. At the same time, the system’s two major reservoirs, which serve as a rainy-day fund for the whole system, have quickly depleted.
Lake Mead, the country’s biggest man-made reservoir, is fed by the Colorado River and has lately fallen to its lowest point since it was constructed in the 1930s. The lake’s water levels have dropped more than 146 feet since its high in January 2000, and it is currently just 35% filled. Lake Powell, the river’s second biggest reservoir, is only about a third full. Billions of kilowatt hours of hydroelectricity that power houses from Nebraska to Arizona are at danger as water levels decrease.
Over the course of 21 years, Lake Mead’s water level drops to 35% of capacity.
Imagery from NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Jeff Lukas, an independent consultant and former research scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he worked on water problems for 20 years, says, “We’re in new territory for this system.”
The US Bureau of Reclamation announced the first-ever formal shortfall on Monday, triggering the Colorado River Basin’s biggest forced water cutbacks to date. And, after decades of getting water from the Colorado River, many farms in the area, including Thelander’s, may soon be without it.
While the farmers were aware that this day would come, they are now faced with a hard reality: in order to remain in business, they would need to extract more water from underground.
Back at the table, Thelander points to the map’s diamonds and circles. Those are the proposed sites for new groundwater wells in his irrigation area, which would be the first new wells dug in decades, according to Thelander.
Thelander shows a map of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District’s canals and groundwater pumps. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
For most of the past century, Colorado River management has been centered on determining who gets to throw their straw into the river next and how much water they may take. That procedure has sometimes resulted in significant disagreements, some of which have gone all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Many of the basin nations are now debating a more difficult topic: who will get less water – and how much. Experts predict that the river’s next phase will be much more controversial.
The existing Colorado River rules will expire in 2026, and early talks for a new framework to decide how to divide the river’s water are already beginning. However, by the time authorities from the states, Mexico, Native American tribes, and the federal government meet, the river’s water supply will almost certainly be much more precarious than it is now.
In Maricopa, Arizona, Thelander uses drip irrigation for his cotton crops. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
The evidence is obvious, according to scientists and water policy experts: the Colorado River’s supply will undoubtedly decrease more as the world heats. Many people believe that, given what we know today, we will need to consume even less water in the future.
Will the states, on the other hand, be able to agree on new rules that reflect this reality? Who will be willing to accept less water if the Southwest’s expanding urban areas and farmers are both dependent on the river’s supply?
The destiny of the most significant water resource in the American West — and the millions of people who depend on it — will be determined by how political leaders and water management respond to those concerns.
The Colorado River Compact, which was signed almost 100 years ago, is at the core of the present water problem.
Delegates from all seven Colorado River Basin states met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in November 1922, under the supervision of then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, to iron out the rules.
The compact talks were acrimonious from the outset. Squabbles occurred over minor issues, such as how to gauge the river’s flow and how to distribute its supplies.
Efforts to achieve an agreement started in January 1922 and continued in November when state representatives met in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They eventually reached an agreement on November 24, 1922, after two weeks of discussion.
The Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Bureau of Reclamation of the United States of America
Water managers argue that without the dams, canals, and pipelines that the compact cleared the way for, much of what we see today would not exist, from the Southwest’s cities to its world-famous agriculture.
“The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest,” says Jeff Kightlinger, who headed the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 15 years until retiring recently. “Without the Colorado River and its growth for all of these areas, none of these cities would be possible.”
New agreements and court rulings throughout the course of the twentieth century further split the river’s supply among the seven basin states, Mexico, and the region’s Native American tribes. However, there was a major fault in the initial agreement, which helps to explain why the river is now experiencing its first-ever deficit.
When the delegates convened, they decided to provide the Upper Basin (which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (which includes California, Arizona, and Nevada) each 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year.
Those figures were based on estimations that the river’s annual flow was about 16.4 million acre-feet. That was more than enough to satisfy the states’ requests. However, evidence indicates that in most years, such projections surpass the quantity of water the river really delivers.
According to US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) statistics, yearly flows on the river averaged slightly under 14.8 million acre-feet between 1906 and 2019. Flows have been considerably lower during the past two decades, averaging just 12.3 million acre-feet per year.
The Lower Basin states did not use all of the water they were legally entitled to until the 1990s. According to experts, this enabled authorities to ignore the river’s water accounting issue for decades.
“It was simple for political actors to disregard that fact throughout the twentieth century…,” says John Fleck, a professor at the University of New Mexico who has authored many books on the Colorado River and water problems in the West. “There was slack in the system because all the dams and diversions that people dreamt of in the 1920s took a century to build.”
That gap has progressively vanished as additional canals and water rights have been given.
The over-allocation issue became increasingly evident in the years after the insertion of one of the final large straws into the river, according to data.
Congress approved the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in 1968, a huge 336-mile canal and pipeline infrastructure that transports Colorado River water over the desert to Phoenix, Tucson, and farms and communities in between.
Heavy groundwater pumping in central Arizona was draining aquifers dry at an alarming pace before the CAP was built in the 1990s. The CAP promised a water supply that was both renewable and dependable.
According to Ted Cooke, the CAP’s general manager, Arizona was only utilizing approximately half of its Colorado River allotment before the CAP was built because there was no infrastructure to transport Colorado River water to towns in the center of the state.
California had long been hostile to the project, but Arizona made a crucial compromise to win support from the state’s congressional delegation: in the case of a shortage, California’s water supplies would take precedence over the requirements of CAP water consumers.
With water restrictions approaching next year, the CAP’s position in the Colorado River’s pecking order is becoming more important.
For years, Arizona farmers like Dan Thelander have known that their Colorado River water supply will ultimately be depleted. They simply didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
The river’s flow has been quickly drained by a drought that started more than two decades ago, as well as the impacts of rising temperatures related to global warming. In the long run, scientists and water policy experts believe such issues threaten users well beyond Pinal County’s farms.
Droughts only last a short time. The river’s drying up may not be permanent.
In Casa Grande, Arizona, rain evaporates near an irrigated cotton crop. There has been a “megadrought” in the region. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
According to Jeff Lukas, a research scientist and water consultant, the Colorado River’s drainage basin covers 246,000 square miles, yet the majority of its flow originates in a handful of snow-capped mountain ranges in southern Wyoming, western Colorado, and northeastern Utah.
Because the river runs through some of the country’s driest terrain, the snow that accumulates there is crucial. Snowmelt accounts for approximately 80% of the river’s water supply in most years, according to Lukas.
Many scientific investigations have looked into why the river is receiving less water. Almost everyone has discovered evidence of human-caused climate change.
The current “megadrought,” which started in the year 2000, is the first and probably most widely accepted reason.
According to a research published in the journal Science in 2020, the period from 2000 to 2018 was the driest in the Southwest since the 1500s, with global warming accounting for almost half of the drought’s severity.
“There is less water left over to flow down the river when there is greater evaporation.”
US Geological Survey’s Chris Milly
The research discovered that, as dry as it has been, this may just be the beginning. Megadroughts in the past have lasted far longer than the present one.
However, the Colorado River’s current state cannot be explained only by a lack of snow and rain. After all, droughts are only transitory. According to some experts, the data suggests that the river’s dwindling flow isn’t so transient.
The river’s predicament, according to Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, is best described by another term: aridification.
Aridification is a transition to a new climatic condition characterized by water shortages and exacerbated by the impacts of rising temperatures. Over the past century, temperatures in the basin have increased by an average of 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
“[Warmer temperatures] are simply this continuous push on the system year in and year out,” Udall adds.
According to Chris Milly, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey who co-authored a study last year analyzing the river’s decline, when temperatures rise, the quantity of precipitation that falls as snow reduces, and the snow that does fall melts sooner.
Much of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by snowpack. However, when the snow melts sooner and exposes bare soil, the earth absorbs more heat from the sun. According to Milly, this causes greater evaporation, which means less runoff gets up in the river.
“The river basin cools itself via evaporation,” Milly explains. “If there is greater evaporation, there is less water remaining to flow down the river.”
The issue is exacerbated by dry soils and thirsty plants. High temperatures in the summer and autumn may dry up soils, resulting in runoff decreases that last even a year later, according to Udall.
Higher temperatures also make the atmosphere “hungrier,” allowing it to retain more water. Evaporative losses from soils and water bodies rise as a result of this.
We’ve seen how some of these processes may lead to dangerously low runoff and stream flows in the past year, according to Udall.
All of this leads to an unfavorable conclusion, according to Udall: As long as humans fail to stop global warming, the river will likely have much less water in the future.
Milly co-authored a research in the journal Science in 2020 that attempted to estimate how much less. Regardless of what measures are done, the scientists concluded that additional reductions in river flow are probable. However, without substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the river’s flows may drop by as much as 31% by the middle of the century, according to the research.
“It’s conceivable that you’ll have a wet year,” Udall adds, “but the long-term pattern is totally wrong.” “With each passing year, this becomes more apparent, and it becomes more difficult for anybody who believes differently to be taken seriously.”
Two workers in yellow hard helmets operate levers underneath a drill rig rising high above the desert floor to push a huge metal pipe into the earth.
A noisy equipment known as a shaker shakes wildly a few feet away, separating murky drilling fluid from earth pieces torn free by the drill bit as it punctures layers of clay, sand, and gravel on its way down.
It’s a scene you’d expect to see in the Permian Basin’s enormous oil fields.
But here, on the outskirts of Maricopa, Arizona, surrounded by acres of alfalfa and dairy pens, the men are searching for something more important to the local economy: water.
According to Marty Weber, CEO of Weber Water Resources, the firm responsible for digging this well, the workers will have to drill down between 1,200 and 1,300 feet to pump water up from the aquifer below.
On the outskirts of Maricopa, Arizona, a new groundwater well is dug. CNN/Drew Kann
The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District is paying for it using money provided to the farmers by the state of Arizona and the CAP as part of their drought contingency plan agreement. Drilling these wells is part of the farmers’ plan to withstand the impending water shortages on the Colorado River.
Farmers in Thelander’s district will only get roughly a third of the water they had in previous years next year. According to the state’s drought preparations, Pinal County’s farmers would likely see their Colorado River supply entirely dry up by 2023.
“…our farm will be less lucrative no matter how you slice it.”
Tempe Farming Company’s Dan Thelander
Thelander wants to have nine to ten additional wells ready before the cutbacks take effect on January 1, 2022, to make up for part of the water they would lose. The new wells are only one example of the upcoming changes in the area. There will soon be barren fields as well.
Thelander’s crops are now flourishing nicely. However, he intends to leave 30 to 40 percent of his property unplanted next year.
“When you’re confronted with difficulty in business, you simply hunker down and do the best you can,” he adds. “However, our farm will be less lucrative in any case.”
While the desert heat is excellent for cotton production, the county is also known for its dairy industry. According to a 2018 research by economists at the University of Arizona, Pinal County formerly ranked in the top 1% of all US counties for both cotton and milk sales.
Many farms in the area, including Thelander’s, specialize on producing alfalfa, maize, and other commodities to feed the thousands of dairy cows that roam the countryside.
When the water cutbacks go into effect, Phoenix residents are unlikely to feel a change, according to George Frisvold, a professor at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the 2018 research. However, he anticipates considerable hardship in the local agricultural sector when the cuts go into effect.
“There will be rippling effects across the economy, and jobs will be lost.”
University of Arizona’s George Frisvold
According to the same 2018 University of Arizona research, losing all of the Colorado River water allotted to local farmers could cost the county between $31.7 and $35 million, as well as 480 jobs.
“There will be ripple effects across the economy, and jobs will be lost,” Frisvold adds. “It will be more apparent in Pinal County’s smaller, rural areas.”
Jim Boyle, a dairy farmer in Casa Grande, Arizona, who milks about 3,500 cows, says he will likely have to fallow part of the area where he produces feed for his animals.
While he considers himself lucky to have deep, productive groundwater wells on his land, he is worried about the fate of those whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture.
Jim Boyle, a fourth-generation farmer, has dairy cows on his property. He intends to convert to mainly Jersey cows due to their smaller size, which allows them to cope better with the Arizona heat and need less water and feed. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
“Our area has a lot of ag-related companies — tractor salesmen, equipment salesmen, fertilizer and chemicals salesmen,” Boyle adds. “It will have a ripple effect throughout the county… and I believe there is some concern.”
Some in the state are also concerned about the farmers’ return to excessive groundwater extraction.
Farms in Pinal County were completely dependent on groundwater to irrigate their crops until the CAP started providing water to them in the late 1980s. Pumping, on the other hand, was draining the aquifers faster than they could be refilled, causing massive cracks to develop as the earth sunk throughout the country.
At the family’s dairy farm in Casa Grande, Arizona, Boyle and his son James gaze out over the Hohokam waterway. The Central Arizona Project is connected to the canal. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
According to an Arizona Department of Water Resources spokesman, estimates indicate that there is not enough groundwater available to satisfy future needs in the Pinal County Active Management Area (AMA), which encompasses most of Pinal County as well as portions of Maricopa and Pima counties. “The days of using native groundwater for development in Pinal are gone, it’s done,” Tom Buschatzke, the head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (AZDWR), told AMA officials last month.
Despite the fact that their Colorado River water is rapidly dwindling, farmers in this area intend to pump even more groundwater to irrigate their crops.
“I am worried about Pinal shifting to groundwater because it implies there will be no supplies for future use,” Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, says. “It’s like spending your long-term money – it’s something you want to do very carefully.”
It remains to be seen if the lack of Colorado River water would hasten other trends in the area.
In Casa Grande, solar panels may be seen across from Caywood Farms. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
Nancy Caywood’s farm in Casa Grande used to receive water from the Gila River system’s San Carlos reservoir in Eastern Arizona. She claims her property hasn’t gotten water since the reservoir went dry in April.
Caywood and her son, Travis Hartman, are cultivating maize on leased property using Colorado River water to make ends meet. Hartman claims that the money he earns from that harvest will help him keep the family farm running.
However, due to Colorado River water restrictions, farming there may no longer be a possibility next year.
Caywood’s 255-acre farm is already bordered to the east by a huge solar project, and she believes panels may be placed on property across the street shortly.
She claims that they, too, had been contacted about leasing their property to solar companies in the past, but have declined.
As the drought worsens, she confesses it’s becoming more difficult to say “no.”
She adds, “We’ve simply chosen to try to hold on and farm as long as we can.”
Herbert Hoover spearheaded the initial effort to split the Colorado River’s supply almost a century ago.
Authorities in states throughout the basin say they are preparing for a future with less water as the first obligatory water cutbacks approach.
Water from the Colorado River has been “banked” in aquifers for years in places like Arizona. In order to conserve water, Las Vegas will phase out “nonfunctional grass” by 2027. Cities all throughout the Southwest are putting money into wastewater treatment and reuse. They claim that all of this will enable local economies to flourish even if the river’s supply decreases.
However, the form of the next 100 years is dependent on discussions that are just getting started.
Kightlinger, the recently departed general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of California and a veteran of previous river talks, predicts that the 2026 process will be difficult.
“In 2003 and 2007, and again in 2019, we had extremely intensive, tough discussions. But this will be the most difficult yet.”
The Red Rock Country Club in Las Vegas has had most of its green turf, lakes, and ponds removed to conserve water and receive rebates from the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Redux/Roger Kisby
According to John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water from the Colorado River to nearly 2.3 million people in Las Vegas and across the state, failure to reach an agreement could usher in an era of uncertainty for the basin’s 40 million water users and increase the likelihood of legal conflicts.
Drought contingency plans signed in 2019 by the federal government, states, Native American tribes, and other water users have averted a worst-case situation, such as Lake Mead or Lake Powell being drained. Entsminger and others cited previous negotiation achievements as evidence of their ability to establish a new agreement.
“The Colorado [River] has been characterized as the world’s most litigated river,” says Entsminger, “and I believe that is accurate if you’re talking about the 1960s and 1970s.” “However, since the mid-1990s, this has been the world’s most successful river basin in terms of seven states and the nation next to it banding together and… finding out how to make this river work for everyone.”
One of the most difficult issues for negotiators, according to experts, is how to deal with the enormous quantity of water consumed by agriculture, which accounts for about 70% of total water consumption in the basin.
Because of their low ranking in the state’s water priority system, Pinal County farmers are suffering the brunt of the first wave of water cutbacks. Other agricultural areas in Arizona and elsewhere, on the other hand, have some of the highest priority water rights in the basin.
Yuma, Arizona, is one of such locations, being the river’s last stop in the United States before flowing into Mexico. According to Yuma’s chamber of commerce, approximately 90% of the leafy greens produced in the United States in the winter are grown on the county’s fields.
According to AZDWR director Tom Buschatzke, the whole Central Arizona Project may run dry before Yuma’s farmers lose a drop of water under existing legislation, owing to their high priority water rights.
Buschatzke said that the United States and the rest of the world need the healthy, high-value products grown in Yuma, but that the river’s diminishing supply may impose tough choices.
“Certainly, the Yuma community does not want any of the water that flows to those farms to be used for non-agricultural uses, but it is something that is on the table,” Buschatzke adds.
Near Yuma, Arizona, farm laborers pick and package cauliflower. VWPics/AP/Jon G. Fuller
With less water to go around, Tom Davis, the general manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association, anticipates increased pressure to transfer agricultural water supplies to the Southwest’s expanding cities.
He claims that he and the farmers he represents would battle to the “death” to preserve their water rights, but admits that they aren’t invincible.
Many Native American tribes, whose families have farmed throughout the area for thousands of years, hold water rights that are among the most important in the basin. According to a recent study by the Water and Tribes Initiative, an alliance devoted to tribal water problems, 22 of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the area now have rights to an estimated 22 to 26 percent of the river’s water supply.
Many tribes have been kept out of these kinds of talks in the past, despite having a sizable share of the pie. In certain areas of the basin, however, there are indications that this is changing.
In Gap, Arizona, Navajo Nation resident Eugene Boonie fills his water tank at the livestock water spigot. The Navajo Nation has 27,000 square miles of territory in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, and they, like many other Native American tribes in the Colorado River Basin, have unresolved water rights issues. Reuters/Stephanie Keith
Thanks to a 2004 settlement with the federal government, the Gila River Indian Community, situated south of Phoenix in Maricopa and Pinal counties, currently has the single biggest water allocation in the whole Central Arizona Project system.
Stephen Roe Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community, says he had to battle for a place at the table in the 2019 drought contingency plan talks. However, once there, he was instrumental in bringing the transaction to a successful conclusion in Arizona.
He said he intends to aggressively protect his community’s water when discussions for the new 2026 standards begin.
“I look forward to being a part of the process if we are recognized as autonomous tribal organizations with respect for our unique water histories.”
Plans to utilize even more river water are moving forward in certain areas as stakeholders prepare to safeguard their water resources.
“The Lake Powell pipeline is an emblem of our 20th-outdated, century’s unsustainable water policy.”
Utah Rivers Council’s Zachary Frankel
Utah’s planned Lake Powell pipeline, which would pump Colorado River water 140 miles from near Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona to St. George, Utah, and neighboring communities, is the most contentious new diversion. Critics claim the proposal is a rejection of climate change realities that may jeopardize millions of people’s water supply.
According to Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, “the Lake Powell pipeline is a symbol of our antiquated, unsustainable water policy of the twentieth century.” “… Utah is still living in denial about climate change’s effect on our water supply, which is more than foolish — it’s dangerous and reckless.”
The bleached “bathtub rings” may be seen on the rocky shores of Lake Powell in Utah’s Reflection Canyon. They illustrate where the water levels were before. Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
Last year, the pipeline seemed to be on a fast track to approval under the Trump administration, but when the six other basin states wrote to then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt opposing the pipeline, Utah sought an extension to examine their concerns and other public comments.
Despite the opposition, Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s new Colorado River commissioner, thinks the project is critical to the state’s development and plans to fight for its approval.
A potentially new (and costly) water source
Near Puertecitos, Mexico, the Sea of Cortez may be viewed. AFP/Getty Images/Guillermo Arias
Meanwhile, as Lake Mead’s water levels fall, governments are looking at developing other water sources to supplement what they get from the Colorado River.
To supplement its water supply, Arizona is considering constructing desalination facilities on the Sea of Cortez near Mexico.
“What else are you going to do when the supply that we rely on is dwindling?”
Central Arizona Project’s Ted Cooke
If constructed, the facilities would convert salt water to fresh via reverse osmosis or thermal distillation. According to Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, that water may be utilized in Mexico in return for a share of Mexico’s Colorado River water supply. While there are still legal and diplomatic obstacles to overcome, Buschatzke believes the quickly worsening situation on the river has given the endeavor a new sense of urgency.
Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona and Governor Claudia Pavlovich of Sonora, Mexico, struck an agreement earlier this year to investigate possible desalination locations. According to a feasibility assessment released last year, the facilities may cost more than $3 billion to construct and run, with yearly operating costs ranging from $71 million to $119 million, not to mention the massive quantities of energy needed to extract salt from water.
Irrigation is no longer used to water a harvested corn crop in Casa Grande. CNN’s Caitlin O’Hara
Despite this, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke believes everything should be on the table since Arizona is more susceptible to water cutbacks than other states.
“It’s costly, but what else are you going to do when the supply that we rely on is dwindling?” he asks.
However, new water sources will take years and billions of dollars to develop. The time is ticking to preserve the water supply that millions depend on today as central Arizona prepares for severe water cutbacks and the potential of greater losses in the coming years.
New forecasts provide a peek into the river’s future with each passing month. They don’t paint a nice image.
According to new modeling released in June, Lake Powell may drop to such low levels by 2024 that hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon Dam would become unfeasible. The dam can provide enough electricity to power 5.8 million households when it is fully operational. The loss of that energy would put even greater strain on Western power systems, which have already demonstrated a susceptibility to blackouts in severe heat, which has been exacerbated by global warming.
The ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity is threatened by Lake Powell’s falling water level. Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
The Bureau of Reclamation recently stated that smaller reservoirs in the Upper basin will release water to assist prop up Lake Powell, in order to keep the generators operating. Water levels will rise by around 3 feet as a result of the inflow. But it may not buy much time for a lake that currently lowers 4 feet or more in a month on a regular basis.
Lake Mead’s future seems to be in jeopardy as well.
According to the same projections, there’s a one-in-five possibility the lake will drop to 1,000 feet above sea level by 2025. That’s just 50 feet over the minimal minimum required to produce power at Hoover Dam, and only 105 feet above “dead pool.” What little water remains in the dead pool cannot flow through Hoover Dam. It would have to be blasted out instead.
As the lake’s water level drops, fresh layers of the lake’s now-famous “bathtub rings” emerge. The white mineral deposits left on the sandstone cliffs of the coastline now rise more than 140 feet above the boats below.
They serve as a reminder of drier times that were not so long ago.
They’re also the most visible indication of a river system trying to adjust to the harsh reality of climate change, which was mainly conceptualized in the twentieth century.
US Geological Survey, National Hydrography Dataset, US Department of Agriculture (Colorado Basin boundaries); US Bureau of Reclamation (reservoir levels and projections, natural flows, Colorado Basin supply and usage); Central Arizona Project (project location); 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines, Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, Minute 323 between Mexico and the US (state water allocations)
In June, boaters sail through Lake Mead’s “bathtub rings.” The reservoir’s water levels are at their lowest since the lake was filled when the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. Shutterstock/Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times