Lake Powell, America’s second largest reservoir, has hit its lowest level since it was first filled fifty years ago amid a climate-fueled drought and increasing demand for water.
As of Sunday, the Utah reservoir had fallen to around 33 percent capacity at roughly 3,554 feet in elevation, according to CNN citing the US Bureau of Reclamation. The previous all-time-low was set in 2005.
The rate at which both Lake Powell and the nearby Lake Mead in Nevada – America’s largest reservoir – have drained this year has alarmed scientists and officials.
Warnings over the water levels at the key reservoirs come as over 95 percent of the Western US is experiencing drought conditions.
Lake Powell (pictured on June 24), America’s second largest reservoir, has hit its lowest level since it was first filled fifty years ago amid a climate-fueled drought
Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both fed by the Colorado River watershed, are critical sources of drinking water and irrigation for many inhabitants across the region, including farms, ranches and native communities.
The water that flows down the Colorado River fills the two reservoirs, which are found along a river system that supplies water to over 40 million people living across seven western states and Mexico.
US Geological Survey scientists published a study in 2020 that found on average, the river’s flow has declined by about 20 percent over the last century.
Over half of that decline can be attributed to warming temperatures across the basin, the study concluded.
While Lake Powell may not the the largest of the two key reservoirs, John Fleck of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico told CNN that it still plays a significant role in the West’s growing water crisis.
‘The bottom dropping out on Lake Powell may be the more serious challenge, because a buffer in Lake Powell allows you to move water down to Lake Mead to make up for the shortcomings,’ Fleck told the network.
As of Sunday, the Utah reservoir (pictured on June 24) had fallen to around 33 percent capacity at roughly 3,554 feet in elevation. The previous all-time-low was set in 2005
The rate at which both Lake Powell (pictured on June 24) and the nearby Lake Mead in Nevada – America’s largest reservoir – have drained this year has alarmed scientists and officials
More than 95 percent of the Western US is currently experiencing drought conditions, the largest area since the US Drought Monitor was created, with more than 28 percent of the area experiencing exceptional drought, the most severe level.
The drought is drying up lakes across the West and worsening massive wildfires affecting California and Oregon. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, has begged people to cut back on lawn watering and ‘pray for rain.’
Extreme conditions like these are often from a combination of unusual random, short-term and natural weather patterns heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change.
Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms, and climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years.
If Lake Powell is projected to drop below 3,525 feet (just 29 feet lower than its current level), the Bureau of Reclamation can release more water to the lake from upstream reservoirs under the 2019 Colorado River Drought-Contingency Plan.
Pictured: A map showing the route of the Colorado River and the locations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, as well as the Blue Mesa Reservoir which could be used to top-up Lake Powell
Such emergency releases are set to begin in August, with the Blue Mesa Reservoir in southwest Colorado expected to be one of the others used.
Water is not the only resource that could be in short supply as a result of the declining water levels. As with Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, the lower levels also threaten Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower production for many states including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Nebraska.
To add to the problems, if the next major Bureau of Reclamation study in August finds even worse water level decline in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River could be declared.
This would mean many communities would have their water supply cut next year.
‘Over time, cities are going to need to conserve more and more water,’ Fleck said, ‘and that doesn’t get any easier with climate change.’
Meanwhile, authorities said they have recovered the body of a third person who died during flooding and mudslides in an area of northern Colorado that was burned by a massive wildfire. One person is still missing.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office was notified Monday that a man’s body was found in the Poudre River, a day after another man was found dead in the waterway.
Lake Powell (pictured) and Lake Mead, both fed by the Colorado River watershed, are critical sources of drinking water and irrigation for many inhabitants across the region, including farms, ranches and native communities
Pictured: In this aerial view, The tall bleached ‘bathtub ring’ is visible on the rocky banks of Lake Powell on June 24, 2021
On Tuesday, a woman’s body was found near the small community of Rustic, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Denver, shortly after a mudslide sent a wave of debris into scenic, winding Poudre Canyon.
‘Our deepest sympathies go out to the family who tragically lost four members in last week’s flood,’ Sheriff Justin Smith said.
Six homes were destroyed and another was damaged, all on the same road, the sheriff’s office said.
The flooding and slides happened in area that was burned last year by the 326-square-mile (844-square-kilometer) Cameron Peak Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history.
Fires torch vegetation that usually helps absorb rain and keeps the ground stable, making those areas more vulnerable to flooding, especially in steep sections. The soil in burned areas can also repel rain.
Extreme temperatures, low humidity, gusty winds and rough terrain contributed to the rapid growth of the fire, the first to spread to about 313 square miles (811 square kilometers) in the state, according to federal fire managers.
A large amount of trees killed by beetles and stricken by the drought also fueled the growth of the fire, according to their final summary.
Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and frequent extreme weather like flooding and droughts and events like wildfires.
But more research is needed to determine how much global warming is to blame, if at all, for a single event.