As climate change deepens, Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue drying up

  • In Business
  • 2021-10-09 10:12:06Z

PAGE, Ariz. - The 150-foot-tall white "bathtub" ring along the red rocks of Lake Powell is the first sign that something isn't right.

Other signs are everywhere: Boat ramps left high and dry. Rock arches emerging from their decades-long submersion. Boat wrecks uncovered by the receding water. Vast mudflats sprawling where water once pooled.

Today, Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir, is just about 30% full and dropping, a water level not seen since the reservoir was first filled when the Glen Canyon Dam blocked up the Colorado River in 1963.

Two hundred miles downstream, the situation is almost identical at Lake Mead, the nation's biggest reservoir: Same bathtub ring, same high-and-dry boat ramps, same mudflats. The historically low levels prompted federal authorities this week to formally declare a water shortage for drought-stricken Southwestern areas served by Lake Mead, cutting water supplies to Arizona by nearly 20% and 7% for Nevada.

A white band of newly exposed rock is shown along the canyon walls at Lake Powell at Antelope Point Marina on July 30, 2021, near Page, Ariz.
A white band of newly exposed rock is shown along the canyon walls at Lake Powell at Antelope Point Marina on July 30, 2021, near Page, Ariz.  

The water shortages are visible signs of an increasingly dire and dry climate across the West. Experts said these conditions will lead to higher food prices across the country, fuel bigger and hotter forest fires and force potentially significant lifestyle changes for tens of millions of Americans, who depend on the water to drink, irrigate their lawns and wash their cars.

Earlier this week, longtime Colorado River climate researcher Brad Udall was shocked to see water levels in Lake Powell have dropped 50 feet from a year ago. In addition to his work as a climate scientist, Udall has rafted down the Grand Canyon 45 times, giving him a water-level view of the Colorado River's flow.

"I mean, you go to the boat ramps and they just end, and, in some cases, they're nowhere near the water," said Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University whose uncle was the U.S. Interior Secretary while the lake filled. "You've got to go back to 1969 - six years into filling it - to find an equivalent level."

The Lake Mead emergency declaration came as 10 western governors asked President Joe Biden to provide federal disaster funding for the area, parts of which have been in a drought for 22 years.

Lake Mead provides drinking water for 25 million people, from Phoenix to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but the low water levels across the West also mean potentially higher food costs for anyone who enjoys Colorado beef, California almonds or lettuce from Arizona.

Federal officials say nearly 60 million Americans are living in drought-stricken areas, which cover 99% of the West. And it's getting worse: Last year, only 2.5% of the area was in extreme or exceptional drought, leaping to almost 60% this year.

In addition to their role in allowing crops to flourish in the otherwise arid West, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also major tourist attractions, drawing a combined 10 million visitors a year, according to federal estimates.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, one of the 10 governors who sent the letter to Biden, said it's clear national solutions are needed, given the number of states impacted. Noting that Colorado saw three of its largest wildfires in history last year, and California has seen several this year, Polis said midwestern and eastern states are being impacted by smoke and ash falling from burning drought-stricken forests.

While water issues in the West have typically pitted states against each other over who is entitled to how much, Polis said it's time for more regional and national cooperation. He said federal drought assistance would help farmers keep food in grocery stores, and federal engineers could help develop new reservoirs to "bank" water when it's available, along with encouraging more efficient farming irrigation systems.

"Western states are tired of fighting like dogs over a shrinking pie," Polis said. "We need to change the game."

While the West typically has both wet and dry spells, experts like Udall say climate change is responsible for at least 1/3 of the overall drop in rain and snow.

And they say millions of Americans will have to permanently adjust to how they water their lawns, feed their families and deal with forest fires caused by the drought. Because most states have more than one source of drinking or irrigation water, there's no immediate impact expected from the cuts, but experts predict that to change in coming years.

"It's a lot warmer, it's a lot drier," Udall said. "Droughts are temporary. This is not temporary."

A \"Launch Ramp Closed\" sign is seen at the Antelope Point launch ramp on Lake Powell on July 31, 2021, near Page, Ariz.
A \"Launch Ramp Closed\" sign is seen at the Antelope Point launch ramp on Lake Powell on July 31, 2021, near Page, Ariz.  

Concerns about the growing water shortages are spreading: Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked residents and businesses to voluntarily curb water use by 15%, a request that was largely ignored this summer, and the state is now backing a $100 million research effort to turn salty ocean water into water to drink and grow food.

California alone grows one-third of the country's vegetables, and two-thirds of all its fruits and nuts, from nearly $5 billion in grapes to $2.7 billion worth of beef and more than $1 billion in tomatoes, according to state officials. Little of that agriculture would happen if the Colorado River didn't provide irrigation water, largely to the southern Imperial Valley and neighboring southern Arizona.

In Yuma, Arizona, farmer John Boelts, 44, said he's thankful he's still got water enough to raise crops of spring and fall melons, and lettuce over the winter. Yuma, known as the winter lettuce capital of the world, helps produce 90% of all leafy greens in the United States during the winter months, even though it only averages about 2.5 inches of rain annually.

To raise those crops, farmers like Boelts, who co-owns the 2,000-acre Desert Premium Farms, depend heavily on water pulled from the Colorado River. He's thankful that Lake Mead and Lake Powell have done their job of storing up water for farmers like him, and he worries what happens if they run dry.

"If we didn't have the dams and the storage, we'd have been toast a long time ago," he said.

Like many of his fellow farmers, Boelts takes pride in knowing he's helping feed the country. He said keeping food production within U.S. borders helps provide national security. The COVID-created supply shortages drove that point home last spring, he said.

Boelts said Yuma-area farmers have increased production by 30% over the past several decades, while simultaneously reducing their water use by 30%. And he remains hopeful that the climate will turn wetter again.

"The old adage that food grows where water flows is real," he said. "We all live and die the same when the glass is less than half full."

Simultaneously, if water levels continue dropping, there won't be enough water at Lake Mead's Hoover Dam or Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam to generate non-polluting hydroelectricity for about 1 million homes across Nevada and California. Already, Mead's generators have dropped to 66% of their usual output, and Lake Powell's could stop entirely by January 2023 under a worst-case scenario projected by federal officials.

While Boelts remains hopeful that more moisture will begin falling again, experts say models suggest that's unlikely.

"One of the things we're learning is that this is likely not a drought anymore. This is the new normal. And it's moving east, creeping up and over east to Minnesota and Iowa," said Taylor Hawes, 52, the Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy and a water attorney for more than 20 years. "We are all going to have to tighten our belts to get through this."

Hawes said long-term predictions indicate the West will get drier, potentially raising food costs and causing a host of trickle-down impacts we may not yet fully understand. For every 1 degree the temperature goes up, there's approximately a 3-5% reduction in river flows, she said. She said some areas, like southern Arizona, may see unusually heavy rainfall but at times when it isn't needed, and dry conditions when water would help most.

"Climate change is water change: too much, too little, the wrong time. And the situation in the West is a manifestation of our challenge with climate change," she said. "It's both a ripple effect and a compounding effect. Right now, you've got ranchers selling off their cattle because there's no forage, no grass. They're having to sell cattle off early, so we may see a glut of beef in the market now and a shortage in the future."

Southern Arizona rancher Dwight Babcock is one of those who had to sell off part of his herd to survive last year's drought. While he usually sells off about 10% of his cattle each year, he winnowed deeper than usual, selling off 1/3 of the herd. Most became hamburgers, he said.

"When we're missing the grass, we're missing the feed," said Babcock, 74. "As we got no rains last year of any consequences, we didn't develop any grass in the summer months, which usually carries us through the rest of the year."

Although heavy rains this summer swept through the Dragoon Mountains of Cochise County about 70 miles southeast of Tucson, where his Three Sisters Land & Cattle ranch sits, the area remains in "moderate" drought. Recharged by those rains, the grass is growing back, but it's poor quality compared to normal, Babcock said. That means he's delaying buying cows to rebuild his herd.

"It's harder and harder, particularly out West," he said. "Most of the young folk don't want to work this hard, and a lot of the land gets sold off for real estate development."

Sooner or later, said Paolo Bacigalupi, an author and futurist who has written about Western droughts, the United States must acknowledge the reality that some of its best-known cities, from Las Vegas to Phoenix, are over-built in areas that are essentially uninhabitable without massive irrigation systems drawing from the Colorado River. As droughts deepen and water shortages grow, we face a reckoning, he said.

Bacigalupi's 2015 novel "The Water Knife" is premised on increasingly dire water shortages causing armed skirmishes and government-sanctioned dam sabotages between neighboring states.

"We built our own plumbing system for an entire half of the United States: pipes and tanks and canals, and that all depends on the idea that a certain amount of water will flow," he said. "It turns out that our idea of how much water would flow was completely wrong. And climate change is making us more wrong every year."

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials Heather Patno and Michael Bernado are responsible for helping predict those water flows, and for keeping water running down the Colorado River through the two reservoirs to irrigate farms and provide water for residents, along with hydroelectricity.

Patno, a hydreaulic engineer who helps manage Lake Powell, worries that the loss of clean hydropower will raise electricity rates for potentially tens of thousands of people, but there's little either can do but watch as the snow and rainfall diminishes and the soils get drier and drier, soaking up what little water does fall across the West.

"We had this big savings account and we've been depleting it," said Bernado, the Lower Colorado Basin river operations manager, and who helps run Lake Mead. "The risk goes up higher the further in time you go out."

In New Mexico, Dine farmer Graham Beyale, 31, said he worries the worsening water shortages caused by both drought and increased demand for the West's fast-growing population will increase conflicts between Indigenous people and white-dominated governments, but also with corporations, either via large agricultural operations or the bottling of drinking water by companies like Nestle.

According to the 2020 Census, three of the top 10 fastest-growing states are in the West: Colorado, Utah and Arizona. And although California lost an estimated 182,083 residents last year, and its growth rate over the past decade has been slightly less than the national average, it still added 2.4 million residents in that decade.

Beyale, who lives in an off-grid tent on the Navajo Nation near Shiprock, New Mexico, raises and distributes heritage corn to other tribal members, using water drawn from the San Juan River. He said the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster upstream in a Colorado tributary to the San Juan sharpened his fears about competition over increasingly scarce water.

The mine spill contaminated hundreds of miles of river for weeks, imperiling crops and drinking water for the Navajo Nation and other area residents. While Navajo Nation residents in theory have the legal rights to water they've been using for thousands of years, the political pressure from growing communities imperils that, Beyale worries.

"Phoenix and Las Vegas are metropolises growing exponentially, and they want water for lawns in the middle of the desert," Beyale said. "It does make me feel like we've got to be preparing because there are going to be fights."

While farmers and experts can see the evidence of droughts and climate change firsthand, they also acknowledge the challenge they face: The rest of the country seems unwilling or uninterested in addressing their concerns. Udall said he's been warning of the growing risks for years and rarely found anyone east of the Mississippi River willing to listen. That's changing, however, as bigger and bigger drought-exacerbated wildfires in California and Oregon have begun inundating the East Coast with smoke, he said.

"We can't really accept things from experts -we seem to have to experience things for ourselves. And for something like climate change, it makes reacting to it all the more difficult," Udall said. "In the last two years, it hasn't been the water shortages that's woken people up, it's the wildfire smoke.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change is emptying Lake Mead and Lake Powell, say experts


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