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Large Reservoirs Out West Could Dry Up in Just Three Years

A bleached ‘bathtub ring’ is visible on the banks of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam on August 19, 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona.

A bleached ‘bathtub ring’ is visible on the banks of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam on August 19, 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Officials out West are worried that crucial reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin states are going to run dry in only three years if significant water reductions aren’t implemented soon.

At a conference last Friday, Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller told attendees that major cuts need to be made to preserve water in those reservoirs for years to come, E&E News reported. “If we don’t reduce our demands, we’re going to really see those reservoirs really hit a crisis,” Mueller said, according to E&E News. “I’m not talking about in 20 years, I’m talking about in the next three or four years.”

Mueller told conference attendees that scientists recommend water managers in Basin states—Nevada, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico—plan on using about a fourth less water than the amount used in 2021, CPR News reported. This recommendation comes after an effort to lower water usage this past summer.

During a Senate hearing discussing the Western drought in June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave water managers in the Colorado River Basin states 60 days to create an emergency plan to significantly lower water usage to preserve the Colorado River. They were ordered to stop using up to 4 million acre-feet of water by the next year, according to CPR News. That’s more than 1.3 trillion gallons of water. The Basin states failed to meet the mid-August deadline.

There’s a reason for the urgency. The Colorado River is a critical body of water that flows for over 1,400 miles and provides water to seven states that are considered part of the Colorado River Basin. They’re divided into the Lower Basin, which includes Nevada, Arizona, and California, and the Upper Basin, which includes Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. The river provides water to more than 40 million people across that region and helps irrigate about 50 million acres of farmland, according to CPR News. But the ongoing drought has lowered its water levels, and earlier this year, it took on the sobering title of America’s Most Endangered River of 2022.

Officials have drawn water from Upper Basin reservoirs in recent years, like the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming, to support Lake Powell’s ability continue generating hydropower. But Mueller said it was unsustainable to continue drawing water from the Upper Basin. “The idea that our water users and communities would suffer the economic harm associated with reducing water use, only to continue to feed that lower basin addiction, is untenable from our perspective,” he said, according to CPR News.

Western states are naturally drier than other regions of the U.S., but a combination of increased water usage and climate change have created drier-than-normal conditions this year. There have been signs of the widespread trouble to come for some time: the American West is in the middle of the worst megadrought in over 1,000 years, supercharged by climate change.

This past winter was the driest in about 128 years out West. Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is supposed to be about 5 feet at the end of the season, but earlier this year there was only 2.5 inches of snow. This meant that there wouldn’t be enough snowmelt to help refill drying waterways and reservoirs. NOAA predicted widespread drought for this spring and summer. By mid-July, Western states had water restrictions and major reservoirs were seeing historically low levels.

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