How severe is the US water crisis? First federal water cuts hit Arizona farmers amid drought

Colorado river reservioirs see shockingly low levels, prompting officials to declare water shortage, dubbed 'painful'

                            How severe is the US water crisis? First federal water cuts hit Arizona farmers amid drought
People visit Boulder Beach at Lake Mead on June 12, 2021, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Global warming has already caused harsher summers, shockingly devastating hurricanes, storms and an alarming rise in sea levels. Now, drying up freshwater sources could be the next big concern. Federal officials on August 16 declared the first-ever water shortage in the country, due to alarmingly low levels in reservoirs along the Colorado River. The declaration comes at a difficult time for the western states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, which are already on the brink of drought. 

In July, the Death Valley recorded its highest ever temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which could possibly be the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. That comes just a year after the Arctic circle recorded its highest ever temperatures, with the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk recording 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on June 20, 2020. Concerns of climate change have also prompted scientists to speculate worse flooding, due to the weakening of the Gulf Stream


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For now, though, it appears as if drought is a bigger concern. The alarming declaration was made as Lake Mead and Lake Powell saw record low water levels, much faster than scientists initially predicted in 2019. "We’re at a moment where we’re reckoning with how we continue to flourish with less water, and it’s very painful,” Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy told Associated Press

Dry cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake Mead is seen near Boulder Beach on May 13, 2015, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


Water cuts affect AZ, NV

For decades, Americans have struggled with crumbling water infrastructure. From the pollution and cover-up in Flint to the shutdown in Washington DC, Americans all over the country have faced dirty, polluted water. But so far, a shortage has not been a major issue. Despite rampant pollution, we've always had access to flowing water on demand, thanks to ample freshwater reservoirs, but that may no longer be the case.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at the heart of the new crisis. The state of drought this year has seen the levels in the two reservoirs drop to record lows. Lake Mead is currently at just 35% of its capacity, its lowest since the lake was filled after the Hoover Dam was completed in the 1930s. Lake Powell is now just 32% full. The news has prompted massive cuts for several states that will go into effect from January 2022. 

A white "bathtub ring" encircles Lake Mead as the water continues falling to historic low levels on September 24, 2004, near Boulder City, Nevada. (David McNew/Getty Images)


Starting in 2022, Arizona will see an 18% reduction in the state's total Colorado River supply, which is predicted to directly impact agriculture. Nevada will be forced to surrender 7% of its allocation, but it may not be as big an issue due to conservation and diversity efforts. Mexico will face a 5% cut, while California won't see any cuts, just yet. The cuts are most significant for Arizona, where farmers are already facing challenges due to global warming. AP reported "their allocation comes from water deemed “extra” by the agency that supplies water to the region." 

This is the first time cuts have been implemented, and so far major cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, and Native American tribes have been shielded. Just a week ago, around 95% of Western USA was officially in drought, with states like Oregon and Washington also facing the crisis for the first time. Drought conditions were also recorded in parts of Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and even Alaska. 

Water crisis on the horizon

Sparked by rising temperatures, water levels at Lake Mead have been falling since 1999. AP reported that due to the worsening weather conditions, the reservoir "may never be full again." Hydrologists predict that by January, water levels will further drop from 1,082 feet to 1,066 feet. In fact, water levels are predicted to drop so much that another round of cuts is expected as early as 2023. The decline isn't something that's been happening over the last few decades though. A 2020 study by US Geological Survey scientists noted that the Colorado River's flow has declined by about 20% over the last century.

Low water levels are visible near the abandoned Echo Bay Marina on May 12, 2015, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


Affected water quotas are one thing, but lake Mead and Lake Powell are also vital sources of hydroelectricity. Dwindling water levels could mean a drop in power generation as well. For now, though, the key focus is on the water itself. The Colorado River supplies water to more than 40 million people living across seven US states and Mexico. Predictions only indicate that the water crisis could get worse, not better. 

Theoretically, it is possible to reverse the crisis, but it would take a multi-state effort, with input from the federal government, and private partners to do so. "Planning for a hotter, drier future with less river water would be more prudent," Porter said. Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the US Department of the Interior said, "I think the best strategy for planning is to think about a broad range of scenarios and a broad range of potential hydrology, and to work closely with our partners in the basin to try to think through all of those scenarios." What those are we don't yet know, but action will be needed soon before the US faces acute water shortages.