Two of the largest US reservoirs on the edge of “dead pool status”

Millions of people in the western US are at risk of reduced access to water and energy as two of the country’s largest reservoirs continue to dry up inch by inch. The United Nations issued a warning on Tuesday that water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at an all-time low and are getting dangerously close to reaching “dead pool status”.

This status means that water levels are so low that water cannot flow downstream to hydroelectric plants.

At the Lake Meadlocated in Nevada and Arizona, the largest man-made body of water in the country, the levels got so low that it essentially became a cemetery – human remainsdried fish and a sunken boat dating back to WWII so far have been revealed beneath the now shallow waters. The lake walls are divided by two contrasting colors that reveal the line where the water used to be.

At full capacity, the lake should reach an altitude of 1,220 feet, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. On this day in 2020, Lake Mead was 1,084 feet above mean sea level. Today, it stands at 1,040. NASA said this could be the worst drought in the region in 12 centuries and that water levels must stay above 1,000 feet to continue providing hydroelectric power 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

Lake Powell, which is in Utah and Arizona, is the second largest man-made reservoir in the country and is experiencing a similar situation. The last time the lake was full was in 1999, but the water is tens of meters below than it was just 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.

United Nations Environment Programme’s ecosystem expert Lis Mullin Bernhardt said conditions “have been so dry for over 20 years that we’re not talking about drought anymore”. The climate crisis and excessive consumption of water are to blame, says the UN.

“We refer to this as ‘aridification’ – a very dry new normal,” they said in a statement.

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

“Climate change is at the heart of the issue,” said Maria Morgado, UNEP’s North American ecosystems officer. “In the long term, we need to address the causes of climate change as well as water demands.”

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

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

The US is one of 23 countries that faced drought emergencies between 2020 and 2022, according to a UN drought report earlier this year. Water stress is “relatively high” in the country, as nearly three-quarters of available renewable water supplies are used every year. Along with a public health and infrastructure burden, this also creates a financial burden – in 2020, California lost between $10 and 20 billion in wildfires and droughts.

Although droughts only account for about 15% of natural disasters, they cause 60% of deaths from extreme weather conditions worldwide. In less than 30 years, scientists predict that more than three-quarters of the world’s population will be impacted.

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