Megadrought causes perilously low water levels at Lake Mead

The megadrought currently choking the western United States is the worst drought in the region in more than 1,000 years. It's having an enormous impact across many states and on several major reservoirs including Lake Mead, a water source for millions of people in the West. Alex Hager, who covers the Colorado River Basin for Northern Colorado Public Radio, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    A megadrought is choking the Western and Southwestern regions of the U.S. It's the worst drought in over 1,000 years in this country.

    This week, local officials in Southern California started restricting water use, including watering of lawns to once or twice a week, for about six million residents. It's also having a major impact on Lake Mead, which is a major source of water for agriculture and for millions of people in the American West.

    The megadrought is connected intimately with climate change, of course. And our story is part of our ongoing coverage of the Tipping Point.

    The Colorado River Basin, a lifeline of the American Southwest, is shrinking. And, with it, the country's two largest reservoirs are going dry. Just 30 miles east of Las Vegas sits Lake Mead on the border of Arizona and Nevada. It's the largest manmade reservoir in North America.

    Lake Mead pumps water from the Colorado River to nearly 25 million people. It's a major water source for residents and tribes in Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Mexico, and some of the country's most productive agricultural sites.

    Patti Aaron, Bureau of Reclamation: About 75 percent of the water goes to irrigation for agriculture. That supplies about 60 percent of the food for the nation that's grown in the United States.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Nearly 40 percent of Arizona's water supply comes from Lake Mead.

    But the lake has been declining for decades due to rising temperatures and climate change, cracked earth and mud where water used to be. Now it's only 30 percent full, an historic low. Over the years, rusted debris and sunken boats have emerged, more recently, some darker discoveries, human remains lost for decades.

    Around the lake, a bathtub ring exposes receding water levels over time. This is what it looked like in 1983. Fast-forward nearly four decades, Lake Mead is now 178 feet lower and continuing to shrink.

    Below Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam provides hydroelectric power to 1.3 million people across three states. But the dam is operating at 67 percent of its capacity. If the reservoir's elevation falls below 950 feet, the dam's turbines will stop spinning.

    Tedd Florendo, Chief Meteorologist, 8 News Now, Las Vegas: People ask me like, what do we need to do to fill up Lake Mead again? I need over a decade of above-average snowfall in the Colorado Rockies to make that happen.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Lake Mead gets water from Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the country. Its water supply is around a fourth of what it used to be.

    States in the Southwest have started limiting some of their use of the Colorado River Basin. And, last month, federal officials took unprecedented action to temporarily keep enough water in Lake Powell, one of the country's largest reservoirs, to continue, generating hydropower for a million homes.

    For more on all this, I'm joined by Alex Hager. He covers the Colorado River Basin for Northern Colorado Public Radio.

    And it is great to have you with us.

    Give us a sense. What does this all mean that these two huge reservoirs are at now critically low levels? It is a lifeline for the American Southwest, but really for all of us, given that it is key infrastructure for the farming industry, for big ag.

  • Alex Hager, Northern Colorado Public Radio:

    That's right.

    Well, it's truly a sign of just how critical the drought is. We're in year 22, going on 23 of drought. And a lot of scientists are saying that this is not just a drought. It's not even a megadrought, but it's a rigidification. It's a sign that the baseline for how much water we should expect in the American West is just going to look very different than it has for a long time.

    And that's going to have implications for 40 million people who depend on the river, for an awful lot of agriculture that a lot of times is the only reason that we see leafy greens on the table in most of this country in the winter.

    And what we're talking about with these two reservoirs is storage. And we're talking about a safety net to make sure that water can keep flowing. And reservoirs are really the means by which humans can take a natural resource and kind of control for fluctuation to make sure that they have some consistency in the timing, location and quantity of where that water goes.

    And you lose some of that ability when you lose volume in the reservoirs.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So, what steps what measures are being taken to preserve, to protect these reservoirs? And are they working so far? Apparently, they're not.

  • Alex Hager:

    Well, across the West, there have been a number of programs to reduce water use from cities to farm fields.

    And we're starting to see more as this gets more critical. In a very direct sense, there have been some measures taken to leave more water in Lake Mead, to release more water from upstream and put it in Lake Powell.

    But even the people who design those measures will tell you that they are not the silver bullet, that they are temporary holdovers until we can come up with something more permanent or until the situation with the water turns around.

    A lot of climate scientists will tell you there is not a very good reason to expect that the water situation will turn around. The big thing that a lot of folks have their eyes on right now is the next round of negotiations for the operating guidelines for the river. Those are due by 2026.

    So a lot of the measures that we're seeing right now, including a number from this year, those are to hold things over until the states and the tribes that use the river's water can come to the table and figure out the new rules for how to get a slice of a pie that is shrinking.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    I was going to ask you about that.

    I mean, in a world where there is less water to go around, I imagine there's a lot of focus on who will be first in line to lose it. So how are those early conversations unfolding?

  • Alex Hager:

    Well, a lot of the states and tribes that do get to use it, they do not want to be the ones to lose more. So there is definitely a spirit of making sure that people can protect water for the folks in their jurisdictions.

    But there's also a lot of talk about collaboration. And whenever you talk to water managers, the top people in states across the West, they say we cannot move forward, there is no path forward unless there is some sense of compromise and collaboration.

    Time will tell as to whether or not they can actually do that. But there is generally a good spirit of conservation in a lot of places. Cities will tell you that they have been able to stretch their water supplies over the past three or four decades using the same amount of water to supply cities that have grown by hundreds of thousands of people.

    And there is some of that spirit in the world of agriculture as well, keeping crops alive with the same amount of water, preparing for a future where they're going to have to keep crops alive with even less.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Let me ask you this.

    As you do your reporting, as you talk to elected officials, as you talk to water regulators, I imagine that they sort of grasp the sense of urgency, but do you pick up in your reporting a sense of panic, the sort of panic that sets in when you see a headline that these two major reservoirs are at critically low, dangerously low levels?

  • Alex Hager:

    In all honesty, there are times that I would expect to and don't pick up on a sense of panic.

    I think there have been a lot of measures taken over the course of the last decade and few decades to safeguard against some of this. I mean, this is a crisis that's referred to a lot of times as a slow-moving train wreck. And so, in places like Central Arizona, which was the first place to lose some of its water allocation in last year's federal shortage declaration, they say that, on the user end, a lot of folks won't notice for maybe a decade, because they have been storing water underground.

    They have been shuffling excess away into those reserves. And the same is true in other areas where there have been measures to remove grassy lawns and save irrigation water that they can put back into the system.

    And there's a lot of examples of measures like that. And I certainly expect that we're going to start to see more in the coming years.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Alex Hager of Northern Colorado Public Radio, thank you for your reporting on this critical issue. And appreciate you joining us this evening.

  • Alex Hager:

    Thanks for having me.

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