As climate change deepens, Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue drying up

·11 min read

PAGE, Ariz. – The 150-foot-tall white "bathtub ring" along the red rocks of Lake Powell is the first sign that something isn't right.

Other signs are everywhere: Boat ramps left high and dry. Rock arches emerging from their decadeslong submersion. Boat wrecks uncovered by the receding water. Vast mudflats sprawling where water once pooled.

Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir, is about 30% full and dropping, a water level not seen since the reservoir was first filled when the Glen Canyon Dam blocked up the Colorado River in 1963.

Two hundred miles downstream, the situation is almost identical at Lake Mead, the nation's biggest reservoir: same bathtub ring, same high-and-dry boat ramps, same mudflats. The historically low levels prompted federal authorities this week to formally declare a water shortage for drought-stricken southwestern areas served by Lake Mead, cutting water supplies to Arizona by nearly 20% and 7% for Nevada.

A white band of newly exposed rock along the canyon walls at Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., highlights the difference between the current lake level and the lake's high-water mark.
A white band of newly exposed rock along the canyon walls at Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., highlights the difference between the current lake level and the lake's high-water mark.

The water shortages are signs of an increasingly dire and dry climate across the West. Experts said these conditions will lead to higher food prices across the country, bigger and hotter forest fires and potentially significant lifestyle changes for tens of millions of Americans, who depend on the water to drink, irrigate their lawns and wash their cars.

This week, longtime Colorado River climate researcher Brad Udall was shocked to see water levels in Lake Powell have dropped 50 feet from a year ago. In addition to his work as a climate scientist, Udall has rafted down the Grand Canyon 45 times, giving him a water-level view of the Colorado River's flow.

"I mean, you go to the boat ramps, and they just end, and in some cases, they're nowhere near the water," said Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University whose uncle was the U.S. interior secretary while the lake filled. "You've got to go back to 1969 – six years into filling it – to find an equivalent level."

The Lake Mead emergency declaration came as 10 governors asked President Joe Biden to provide federal disaster funding for the West, parts of which have been in a drought for 22 years.

Lake Mead provides drinking water for 25 million people, from Phoenix to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The low water levels across the West also could mean higher food costs for anyone who enjoys Colorado beef, California almonds or lettuce from Arizona.

Federal officials said nearly 60 million Americans are living in drought-stricken areas, which cover 99% of the West. And it's getting worse: Last year, only 2.5% of the area was in extreme or exceptional drought, leaping to almost 60% this year.

In addition to their role in allowing crops to flourish in the otherwise arid West, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are major tourist attractions, drawing a combined 10 million visitors a year, according to federal estimates.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, one of the 10 governors who sent the letter to Biden, said national solutions are needed, given the number of states affected. Noting that Colorado saw three of its largest wildfires in history last year, and California has seen several this year, Polis said smoke and ash falling from burning drought-stricken forests affect Midwestern and Eastern states.

Though water issues in the West have pitted states against each other over who is entitled to how much, Polis said it's time for more regional and national cooperation. He said federal drought assistance would help farmers keep food in grocery stores, and federal engineers could help develop reservoirs to "bank" water when it's available, along with encouraging more efficient farming irrigation systems.

"Western states are tired of fighting like dogs over a shrinking pie," Polis said. "We need to change the game."

Though the West has both wet and dry spells, experts such as Udall said climate change is responsible for at least a third of the overall drop in rain and snow.

They said millions of Americans will have to permanently adjust to how they water their lawns, feed their families and deal with forest fires caused by the drought. Because most states have more than one source of drinking or irrigation water, there's no immediate impact expected from the cuts, but experts predict that to change in coming years.

"It's a lot warmer, it's a lot drier," Udall said. "Droughts are temporary. This is not temporary."

The Antelope Point launch ramp is closed on Lake Powell on July 31 near Page, Ariz.
The Antelope Point launch ramp is closed on Lake Powell on July 31 near Page, Ariz.

Concerns about the growing water shortages are spreading: California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked residents and businesses to curb water use by 15%, a request that was largely ignored this summer. The state backs a $100 million research effort to turn salty ocean water into water to drink and grow food.

California alone grows one-third of the country's vegetables, and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, from nearly $5 billion in grapes to $2.7 billion worth of beef and more than $1 billion in tomatoes, according to state officials. Little of that agriculture would happen if the Colorado River didn't provide irrigation water, largely to the southern Imperial Valley and neighboring southern Arizona.

In Yuma, Arizona, farmer John Boelts, 44, said he's thankful he's got water enough to raise crops of spring and fall melons and lettuce over the winter. Yuma, the winter lettuce capital of the world, helps produce 90% of leafy greens in the USA during the winter months, even though it averages only 2.5 inches of rain annually.

To raise those crops, farmers such as Boelts, who co-owns the 2,000-acre Desert Premium Farms, depend heavily on water pulled from the Colorado River. He's thankful that Lake Mead and Lake Powell have done their job of storing up water for farmers, but he worries what will happen if they run dry.

"If we didn't have the dams and the storage, we'd have been toast a long time ago," he said.

Like many of his fellow farmers, Boelts takes pride in knowing he helps feed the country. He said keeping food production within U.S. borders contributes to national security. The COVID-19-created supply shortages drove that point home last spring, he said.

Boelts said Yuma-area farmers have increased production by 30% over the past several decades, while reducing their water use by 30%. He remains hopeful that the climate will turn wetter again.

"The old adage that food grows where water flows is real," he said. "We all live and die the same when the glass is less than half full."

If farmers such as Boelts can't grow as much because there's not enough water to irrigate their crops, Americans will pay more for food or import more from foreign countries.

If water levels continue dropping, there won't be enough water at Lake Mead's Hoover Dam or Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam to generate nonpolluting hydroelectricity for about 1 million homes across Nevada and California. Mead's generators have dropped to 66% of their usual output, and Lake Powell's could stop entirely by January 2023 under a worst-case scenario projected by federal officials.

"One of the things we're learning is that this is likely not a drought anymore. This is the new normal. And it's moving east, creeping up and over east to Minnesota and Iowa," said Taylor Hawes, 52, the Colorado River program director for the Nature Conservancy and a water attorney for more than 20 years. "We are all going to have to tighten our belts to get through this."

Hawes said long-term predictions indicate the West will get drier, potentially raising food costs and causing a host of trickle-down impacts we may not fully understand. For every 1 degree the temperature goes up, there's approximately a 3%-5% reduction in river flows, she said. She said southern Arizona may see unusually heavy rainfall when it isn't needed and dry conditions when water would help most.

"Climate change is water change: too much, too little, the wrong time. And the situation in the West is a manifestation of our challenge with climate change," she said. "It's both a ripple effect and a compounding effect. Right now, you've got ranchers selling off their cattle because there's no forage, no grass. They're having to sell cattle off early, so we may see a glut of beef in the market now and a shortage in the future."

Southern Arizona rancher Dwight Babcock usually sells off about 10% of his cattle each year. To survive last year's drought, he winnowed deeper, selling off a third of the herd. Most became hamburgers, he said.

"When we're missing the grass, we're missing the feed," said Babcock, 74. "As we got no rains last year of any consequences, we didn't develop any grass in the summer months, which usually carries us through the rest of the year."

Although heavy rains this summer swept through the Dragoon Mountains of Cochise County, where Babcock's Three Sisters Land & Cattle ranch sits, the area about 70 miles southeast of Tucson remains in "moderate" drought. Recharged by those rains, the grass is growing back, but it's poor quality compared with normal, Babcock said. That means he's delaying buying cows to rebuild his herd.

"It's harder and harder, particularly out West," he said. "Most of the young folk don't want to work this hard, and a lot of the land gets sold off for real estate development."

Sooner or later, said Paolo Bacigalupi, an author and futurist who has written about Western droughts, the United States must acknowledge that some of its cities, from Las Vegas to Phoenix, are overbuilt in areas that are essentially uninhabitable without massive irrigation systems drawing from the Colorado River. As droughts deepen and water shortages grow, we face a reckoning, he said.

Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, "The Water Knife," is premised on increasingly dire water shortages causing armed skirmishes and government-sanctioned dam sabotages between neighboring states.

"We built our own plumbing system for an entire half of the United States: pipes and tanks and canals, and that all depends on the idea that a certain amount of water will flow," he said. "It turns out that our idea of how much water would flow was completely wrong. And climate change is making us more wrong every year."

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials Heather Patno and Michael Bernado are responsible for helping predict those water flows and for keeping water running down the Colorado River through the two reservoirs to irrigate farms and provide water for residents, along with hydroelectricity.

Patno, a hydraulic engineer who helps manage Lake Powell, worries that the loss of clean hydropower will raise electricity rates for potentially tens of thousands of people, but there's little either can do but watch as snow and rainfall diminish and the soil gets drier, soaking up what little water does fall across the West.

"We had this big savings account, and we've been depleting it," said Bernado, the Lower Colorado Basin river operations manager who helps run Lake Mead. "The risk goes up higher the further in time you go out."

In New Mexico, Dine farmer Graham Beyale, 31, said the worsening water shortages caused by drought and increased demand for the West's fast-growing population could increase conflicts between Indigenous people and white-dominated governments and corporations, either via large agricultural operations or the bottling of drinking water by companies such as Nestle.

According to the 2020 census, three of the top 10 fastest-growing states are in the West: Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Although California lost 182,083 residents last year and its growth rate over the past decade has been slightly less than the national average, it added 2.4 million residents in that decade.

Beyale, who lives in an off-grid tent on the Navajo Nation near Shiprock, New Mexico, raises and distributes heritage corn to other tribal members, using water drawn from the San Juan River. He said the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster upstream in a Colorado tributary to the San Juan sharpened his fears about competition over increasingly scarce water.

The mine spill contaminated hundreds of miles of river for weeks, imperiling crops and drinking water for the Navajo Nation and other residents. Though the Navajo Nation in theory has legal rights to water members have used for thousands of years, political pressure from growing communities threatens that, Beyale said.

"Phoenix and Las Vegas are metropolises growing exponentially, and they want water for lawns in the middle of the desert," Beyale said. "It does make me feel like we've got to be preparing because there are going to be fights."

Farmers and experts who see the evidence of droughts and climate change firsthand acknowledge the challenge they face: The rest of the country seems unwilling or uninterested in addressing their concerns. Udall said he's warned of the growing risks for years and rarely found anyone east of the Mississippi River willing to listen. That's changing as bigger drought-exacerbated wildfires in California and Oregon have inundated the East Coast with smoke, he said.

"We can't really accept things from experts – we seem to have to experience things for ourselves. And for something like climate change, it makes reacting to it all the more difficult," Udall said. "In the last two years, it hasn't been the water shortages that's woken people up, it's the wildfire smoke."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change is emptying Lake Mead and Lake Powell, say experts