Two of America’s largest reservoirs on the brink of ‘dead pool status’

Millions of people in the western United States are at risk of seeing reduced access to both water and power as two of the nation’s largest reservoirs continue to dry up inch by inch. The UN issued a warning on Tuesday that water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at their lowest ever and are dangerously close to reaching “dead pool status”.

Such a status means that the water level is so low that water cannot flow downstream to power hydroelectric plants.

On Lake Meadlocated in Nevada and Arizona, the country’s largest artificial body of water, the levels have become so low that it has essentially become a graveyard – human remainsdried fish and a sunk boat dating back to World War II have so far been revealed from beneath the now shallow waters. The walls of the lake are divided by two contrasting colors that reveal the line where the water once sat.

At maximum capacity, the lake should reach an elevation of 1,220 feet, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. On this day in 2020, Lake Mead sat at 1,084 feet above mean sea level. Today it is at 1,040. NASA has said this could be the worst drought in the region in 12 centuries, and that water levels must remain above 1,000 feet to continue providing hydropower at normal levels.

This composite shows the difference in water levels at Lake Mead from July 6, 2000 to July 3, 2022. / Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

This composite shows the difference in water levels at Lake Mead from July 6, 2000 to July 3, 2022. / Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Lake Powell, located in Utah and Arizona, is the nation’s second largest man-made reservoir and is experiencing a similar situation. The last time the lake was full was in 1999, but the water is dozens of feet lower than it was last year. As of Thursday, it was only a quarter full.

Both lakes provide water and electricity to tens of millions of people in seven states, as well as irrigation water for agriculture.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s ecosystem expert Lis Mullin Bernhardt said conditions “have been so dry for more than 20 years that we are no longer talking about drought.” The climate crisis and the overconsumption of water are to blame, says the UN.

“We are referring to ‘drying’ – a new very dry normal,” they said in a statement.

And even if water cuts are introduced to try to ration the supply, it may not be enough.

“Climate change is at the heart of the problem,” said Maria Morgado, UNEP North America ecosystem officer. “In the long term, we need to address the root causes of climate change as well as water needs.”

These water demands are only exacerbated by the climate crisis, the UN said, as large parts of the country face a brutal circumstance of more frequent and intense droughts and extreme heat.

“These conditions are alarming,” Bernhardt said, “and especially in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead region, it’s the perfect storm.”

The United States is one of 23 countries that have faced drought crises between 2020 and 2022, according to a drought report from the United Nations earlier this year. Water stress is “relatively high” in the country, as nearly three-quarters of available renewable water supplies are used each year. Along with a burden on public health and infrastructure, this also creates an economic burden – in 2020, California lost between $10-20 billion from wildfires and drought.

While droughts only account for around 15% of natural disasters, they cause 60% of deaths in extreme weather worldwide. In less than 30 years, scientists predict that more than three quarters of the world’s population will be affected.

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