Drought on the Colorado River: America's biggest reservoirs on the brink of disaster

A multi-decade drought has left Lake Mead and Lake Powell with record low water levels

Joe Lapekas stands on the red sandstone rocks that help make Lake Powell a world-famous tourist destination in the American South-West. The warm waters of the reservoir, which bridges southern Utah and northern Arizona, lap gently at his feet — and that’s a major problem.

“We would be 20 feet [6.1 metres] underwater here in a normal year,” Mr Lapekas said.

A 22-year drought along the Colorado River that feeds into Lake Powell and nearby Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, has left the bodies of water at their lowest levels in decades.

Lake Mead, which sits right outside Las Vegas, is at its lowest level since the 1930s, when the lake was first filled by the Hoover Dam. It currently sits at about 35 per cent of its total capacity. Similarly, Lake Powell is at only 34 per cent capacity.

Lake Powell, Lake Mead and the Colorado River are considered the lifeblood of the south-western US, providing water to 40 million Americans and irrigating millions of acres of land used to feed people all over the globe.

In August, the federal government expects to declare its first-ever water shortage in Lake Mead, which will trigger a cascade of water cuts to seven US states and two states in Mexico.

By next spring, some scientists project Lake Powell will hit its lowest level since it was filled a half century ago, possibly impeding its ability to generate hydroelectric power for the millions of people who depend on it in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska.

“The five-year projections for the Colorado River system reaffirm this is a serious situation,” said Wayne Pullan, the US Bureau of Reclamation's regional director for the Upper Colorado Basin, in a statement issued in June.

Mr Lapekas, who runs a paddleboarding business on Lake Powell, told The National that water levels have recently been dropping by as much as 2.5 centimetres every day.

This season, he has had to search for new places to launch his kayaks from. “It’s affected the way we operate because our kayaks and paddle boards now have to be carried up and down a sand hill to get to and from the water,” he said, standing near the ramp where he used to launch his boats.

The area Mr Lapekas currently uses to launch kayaks may soon be unnavigable. A rock ledge is emerging from the water and each week, the dropping water levels bring it closer to the surface.

“We really don't know what is below this ledge that we can see. Is there another beach? Is there another ledge? Are we going to be able to climb down to another ledge to get our customers, boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders to that ledge or are we going to be faced with finding an entirely different location to get to the water?” Mr Lapekas wondered as he stared into the crystal-clear lake.

The ramp Mr Lapekas uses for his kayaks is no longer accessible to motorboats. Pleasure-craft operators have to use another launch point 28 kilometres away.

Cory Olsen, 64, has been coming to the lake since he was 12. The St George, Utah, native has never seen the water this low.

“I’m worried. I love this place, but we have a water problem, ” Mr Olsen told The National.

While Mr Olsen has enjoyed seeing some new rock formations that have been exposed by the receding waters, he recognises these as doomsday signs of a larger problem.

“It’s global warming, it’s real, and people have to get with it. We can't deny this any longer,” Mr Olsen said.

Climate experts have tied the falling levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to drying headwaters on the Colorado River. Its source lies high in the Rocky Mountains and it is the region's historically heavy snowfall that powers the river.

“Precipitation in the West equals snowpack, and that snowpack is what gets us through the arid summers,” said Keith Musselman, a scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

But in recent years, the snow has not come. A study by the US Geological Survey published in February found that global warming is shrinking the Rocky Mountain snowpack at a rate of about 9.3 per cent for each degree of global temperature increase.

The authors said the study “identifies a growing potential for severe water shortages” in the Colorado basin, where Lake Powell and Lake Mead sit, and added that people there need to prepare for a drier future.

Since the drought began more than two decades ago, Lake Mead, which provides drinking water to 20 million people, has seen its levels drop more than 40 metres — the equivalent of a 13-storey building. As the water level has receded, it has left behind a chalk-white ring on the canyon walls.

It is a striking reminder of the longevity and seriousness of the drought.

“Everybody who lives in this area is rather concerned that we have limited water supply. The growth of the area as far as population goes is increasing all the time, and so there are concerns to make sure that we have enough water for the future,” said David Kreamer, a professor of hydrology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Prof Kreamer said that if water levels drop another 35cm, which scientists expect to happen in the next month or so, it will trigger a multistate water contingency plan. That means water rationing will have to take place in Arizona, Nevada and California beginning in January.

And it’s not only humans who are being affected by the plunging water levels — the very fabric of the waterway is changing, too.

“The water temperatures are increasing and the air temperatures are increasing, which increases the chance for algal blooms in the lake,” Prof Kreamer explained.

Algal blooms could negatively affect water quality for the hundreds of species that call the lake home.

Scientists are scrambling to put in place plans for a water system that is rapidly depleting, but without significant snowfall, there is little that can be done to mitigate the situation.

Lake Powell was designed to help Lake Mead and the growing population in the American West survive periods of drought, serving as a type of savings account that can release water downstream when necessary. But the account has been pilfered by the current drought and extreme heat.

If water levels in Lake Powell drop further still in the next year, which the Bureau of Reclamation estimates is probable, it will trigger another multistate contingency plan.

Though many will be able to draw from other water sources to set off the immediate impacts of the shortage, this year’s record low levels have been a wake up call to many who live around the reservoirs.

“Water is not a right; it’s a privilege and for all those people who are watering their big lawns, they have got to stop. We can’t do this forever,” said Mr Olsen.

For Mr Lapekas, keeping the water above a certain level means keeping his income — and that could be threatened if the levels keep dropping.

“I’m very concerned. I’m a business owner here. This is our livelihood. I’ve got a substantial staff that is depending on us to keep this thing going. We have to judge it every day and look where it's going and how we’re going to deal with it, and it's a bit of an unknown,” he said.

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River drought in the American West.

Updated: July 26th 2021, 7:13 AM
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