The American Southwest is facing an unprecedented drought as temperatures reach record highs and scant rainfall is to be found. Unfortunately, federal and state policy has encouraged rapid population growth and the transformation of arid land into intensive agricultural expanses across the region over the last century. Now, the desert is striking back and the federal government has declared a water shortage at Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona for the first time ever.
Lake Mead is one of the principal reservoirs feeding water to the Colorado River and was formed by the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935. The Colorado River, through several different canals, is the primary source of freshwater for municipalities in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado, as well as irrigation for approximately one million acres of land. The Hoover Dam is also one of the country’s largest hydroelectric dams and it generates billions of kilowatt-hours annually, enough to serve millions of residents across the region. However, the declining water levels of Lake Mead are in turn steadily reducing power generated by the plant.
As reported by The New York Times, the declaration of the shortage will trigger cuts in water supply across the region; first Arizona farmers will be cut off, then smaller reductions will be rolled out for Nevada as well as Mexico. Since the inexorable decline of Lake Mead will likely continue unabated, further cuts are expected to impact the tens of millions of people who rely on the reservoir and river for water.
A short-term solution some organizations such as the Glen Canyon Institute advocate for is emptying of Lake Powell (another artificial reservoir upriver that has dropped a hundred and forty feet in the last two decades), through the Colorado River into Lake Mead. The aptly dubbed Fill Mead First Strategy would see the consolidation of the two half-empty reservoirs and could conserve an estimated 300,000 acre-feet of water in the Colorado Basin annually, enough to supply all of Nevada. It is also noted that Lake Powell is rapidly approaching its minimum power pool, or the floor required to generate hydropower at the Glen Canyon Dam.
There is some hope that the new infrastructure bill will include funding for natural infrastructures, such as watersheds and forests, which could strengthen water reserves across the region. However, despite the bill passing in the Senate, the battle over House passage is still ongoing.