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?

Data App: Texas Reservoir Levels | The Texas Tribune


Data App: Texas Reservoir Levels | The Texas Tribune

Data App: Texas Reservoir Levels | The Texas Tribune.

The prolonged drought in Texas has severely impacted our water reservoirs.  Many of those in west Texas are almost dry.  What will happen to the citizens who depend on them for water when they’re gone?  Click the link for an interactive map showing water levels in the lakes, with information updated daily.

The Perfect Firestorm

via Sobering future of wildfire dangers in U.S. west, researchers predict.

ScienceDaily Feb. 14, 2012 — The American West has seen a recent increase in large wildfires due to droughts, the build-up of combustible fuel, or biomass, in forests, a spread of fire-prone species and increased tree mortality from insects and heat.

Researchers from the University of Oregon’s Geography Department used historical charcoal data to analyze past fires.    They concluded that

climate and people affect the present-day landscapes and forests of the American West, and …. they may change in the future..

Key findings of the study include

warm, dry intervals, such as the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” between 1,000 and 700 years ago, which had more burning, and cool, moist intervals, such as the “Little Ice Age” between 500 and 300 years ago, had fewer fires

Wildfires during most of the 20th century were almost as infrequent as they were during the Little Ice Age, about 400 years ago. However, only a century ago, fires were as frequent as they were about 800 years ago, during the warm and dry Medieval Climate Anomaly. “In other words, humans caused fires to shift from their 1,000-year maximum to their 1,000-year minimum in less than 100 years,”

Climate and humans acted synergistically — by the end of the 18th century and early 19th century — to increase fire events that were often sparked by agricultural practices, clearing of forests, logging activity and railroading.

These conclusions indicate that the current level of wildfires should be much higher due to dry conditions and the build-up of fuels.  Fire suppression activities are “unsustainable” and we should expect more nasty fires to occur.

“Recent catastrophic wildfires in the West are indicators of a fire deficit between actual levels of burning and that which we should expect given current and coming climate conditions. Policies of fire suppression that do not account for this unusual environmental situation are unsustainable.”



La Nina returns

via Drought Causes Mexico Food Shortages : Image of the Day.

The growing season of 2011 was not kind to the southern United States and northern Mexico. As racing fires, heat, and record-dry conditions in Texas claimed attention, crops were quietly failing across the border in northern Mexico.

The current La Nina, which is strengthening again, is probably to blame for the prolonged drought.  Mexico has begun food deliveries to  Tarahumara communities in the northern region of Mexico, which have hit hard by food shortages due to the drought.

The peaking La Nina will bring rain and storms to parts of North America, but here in Texas we have more drought to look forward to.

Running on Empty

via Draft Water Plan Says Texas “Will Not Have Enough” — Water Supply | The Texas Tribune.

“The primary message of the 2012 state water plan is a simple one,” the introduction states. “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, and its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

As population rises, demand will increase, although the increases are predicted to be slower than growth.  The lower predictions result from a decrease in demand from agriculture – we won’t be growing as many crops.

“In Texas, temperatures are likely to rise; however, future precipitation trends are difficult to project. If temperatures rise and precipitation decreases, as projected by climate models, Texas would begin seeing droughts in the middle of the 21st century that are as bad or worse as those in the beginning or middle of the 20th century.”

How will Texas citizens’ cope with the declining water supply?  More reservoirs, transferring water from one basin to another, and auditing water loss from public utilities (broken lines, etc.).

Of course, conservation should be the number one topic that results from this study – doing more with less.  Do you really need a green yard full of St. Augustine grass?


  • Archives