The second-largest reservoir in the country, Lake Powell, which supplies water and electricity to millions of people in southern California, has reached its lowest levels since it was officially topped off in the 1960s.
The levels of Lake Mead, its twin reservoir, are virtually as low.
Combined, these reservoirs, which receive water from the powerful Colorado River, supply the water that 40 million Americans rely on. Experts say it would take years of similar weather to replenish the West’s water resources, despite the storms that brought copious rain and snow to California and other Western states in January.
“The two reservoirs were 95% full in 2000. According to Colorado State University water and climate expert Brad Udall, they are currently about 25% full. The Colorado River’s significance to the entire American Southwest cannot be overstated.
What is Lake Powell?
The second-largest reservoir in the nation is called Lake Powell. The Colorado River was dammed at Glen Canyon in southern Utah and northern Arizona to produce it.
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In accordance with the Colorado River Compact, it serves as a water storage facility and generates energy using Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectric turbines.
1956 saw the start of construction on the Lake Powell dam, which was completed in 1966. It took sixteen years to fill. The lake rose to a height of 3,708 feet above sea level in 1983.
Its current height is 3,522 feet.
What happens if the water level goes lower?
Lake Powell hasn’t been this low since June of 1965, just two years after it began to fill with water.
- The biggest worry: If the lake’s level falls much lower, it won’t be possible to get water out of it.
- Why? Tubes that run water through hydroelectric turbines could soon be above the water. There are bypass tubes available below that point, but they weren’t designed for continuous use, so it’s not clear how they would fare.
- Important quote: “If you can’t get water out of the dam, it means everyone downstream doesn’t get water,” said Udall. “That includes agriculture, cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.”
- Will water stop flowing? “That’s a doomsday scenario,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Before things get to that point the Department of the Interior will require reductions in use.
- How long until water stops flowing downstream? If the lake falls another 32 feet – about the amount it fell in the past year – power generation concerns become more urgent, Udall said. Snowmelt this spring is forecast to bring levels up somewhat.
Why is the water level so low?
Lake Powell’s water level is low as a result of the Colorado River’s water level declining over time. The West’s growing population has boosted demand at the same time.
In comparison to the 20th century, the river’s overall flow has decreased by 20% in this century.
Background: As California complicates a crucial water contract, a Western water crisis threatens.
A significant portion of the reduction has been attributed to anthropogenic climate change in more than four scientific studies. In part, this is due to less rain and snow, in part, it is because plants require more water as temperatures rise, and in part, it is due to more water evaporating out of the soil than would have otherwise ended up in the river. The river itself also evaporates more frequently.
Professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University Flavio Lehner said, “It’s terrible that the essentially natural occurrence of a drought has coincided with this growing temperature due to greenhouse gases.” This has brought everything to a head much sooner than anticipated.
What about Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam?
The largest reservoir in the country, Lake Mead, is Lake Powell’s partner. After the Hoover Dam was finished in 1935, Mead was produced. It provides Arizona, California, and Nevada with power and water.
1,047 feet above sea level is the elevation of Lake Mead. To find levels that low, you would have to travel back to April 1937, which was also two years after the reservoir’s initial filling. According to Hasencamp, it is anticipated to reach a new record low next summer.
The lake isn’t quite low enough to worry about taking water out of it yet, but because of decreased rain and snowfall and rising evaporation, any chance of it ever filling up is years, if not impossible.
The water from Lake Mead is essential to some of America’s biggest cities. According to Udall, “It supplies 90% of the water to Las Vegas, 50% to Phoenix, essentially 100% to Tucson, and 25% to Los Angeles.”
What will happen if water levels keep dropping?
The Colorado River Compact’s seven member states were required by the Department of the Interior to develop a strategy by January to reduce water use by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet. They were unable to reach a compromise.
As a result, it is anticipated that the Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of managing water resources, will impose one sometime in the coming year.
“This seems to be a good (water) year, but even so, if it gets dry again, there might be some really significant cutbacks,” said Hasencamp.
Even though it will hurt, the place can nevertheless prosper.
Hasencamp remarked that “the West might look different.” You won’t see the green lawns and endless alfalfa fields of today, but you will see prosperous towns and agricultural areas.
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