Western Reservoirs Running Dry

Lake Powell

Image: Airflore/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The West is currently in the middle of a severe drought, and Lake Powell, the region’s second-largest reservoir, is at its lowest level in decades. The lake, located on the Colorado River, is effectively a human-made storage basin that keeps the regional water supply in balance under the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact. It’s where water is released to the compact’s lower states (Arizona, California and Nevada) from upper states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). That balance is off, and officials just “pulled the emergency lever:” they released water from reservoirs upstream in order to keep drinking water and hydropower flowing. 

Why This Matters: Water levels this low are a threat to both water supplies for 40 million people as well as the ability to generate power. Years of overuse colliding with the climate change-fueled drought could blow up the seven-state water-sharing deal. “If the water levels fall below 3,525 feet in Lake Powell and the agreement falls apart, it could “potentially lead to seven-state litigation, which we’ve never seen before on [the] Colorado River,” Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief of the federal, interstate and water information section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told Colorado Public Radio. “Which would create a lot of uncertainty. It would probably be a very long, drawn out process.”

Troubled Waters: Lake Powell isn’t the only reservoir in trouble. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir that also pulls from the Colorado River, also hit a record low this summer. A new coalition is calling for a stop to plans that would take more water from the river, including proposed dams and pipelines across the river basin.

We’ve got farmers. We’ve got enviros. We’ve got businesses. We’re the type of coalition that they say can’t be put together. But we’re here to say, damn the status quo. No more business as usual,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said at a recent news conference. “Why? Because we’re failing. It’s plain and simple.”  

Drought from Space: If it’s hard to wrap your head around the scale of a massive reservoir at just around 34% capacity, have a look at these satellite photos from the region’s dried-up water supplies. 

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