Missing Water in the West

The recession of the massive lake that straddles Nevada and Arizona is symbolic of a long-standing problem that just got a lot worse: The Colorado River’s record-low flows and the shrunken reservoirs of lakes Mead and Powell (pictured above) for the first time have triggered big cuts in the amount of water allowed to flow downstream.

via Feds Slash Colorado River Release to Historic Lows.

Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River water to supply electricity to light the towns and run the air conditioners, and the water to green up the desert and grow crops.  And for the past 14 years, there is less water in the river than any time in the past 1,200 years.

Lake Powell, upstream on the river, is losing most of its water to drought.  Farther down the river, Lake Mead is being sucked dry by Las Vegas and agricultural use.  Over two year’s worth of water is “missing” – 16 million acre-feet.

The Colorado River Basin “is one of the most critical sources of water in the West,” Connor said in written comments submitted to a Senate subcommittee hearing in July. The river and its tributaries quench the thirsts of 40 million people and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland, plus seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks.

If it rains and snows in above normal amounts next year, the crisis might be delayed for a while.  Several years of above-average precipitation could help to refill the lakes.  But at this point, that appears unlikely.

By current river law, Lake Mead must deliver a certain amount of water downstream, but the lake is draining faster than its refilling. At some point, if the situation doesn’t improve, the fear is it may come to deciding this: Do we cut off water supply to Las Vegas to two million people because the reservoir has dropped too low? Or does someone else pay?

Because most of the water goes to agriculture, if the drought continues there will be hard choices.  Who will win?  Who will lose?  Will people still want to move there if water usage is restricted?  What new technologies will be developed to deal with this situation?  What are you doing to conserve our natural resources?

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