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Low water levels in lakes across the U.S. a growing concern

Lake Powell
Posted at 8:38 AM, Mar 22, 2022

PAGE, Ariz. — Danny Woods is worried about water. Specifically, the water levels in Lake Powell.

“This is the main source of water for millions and millions of people,” said Woods

It's his livelihood — he runs a kayak tour company in Page, Arizona with his business partner Michael Collins.

“From southern California to Phoenix, Las Vegas, survive on this water,” said Collins.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. Both are part of the Colorado River basin which supplies water for nearly 40 million people in the Southwest.

“Too much water distributed, too little coming into the system and you can guess what happens, the rivers dry up, the reservoirs dry up and both the environment and people are in a heap of trouble,” said Bob Adler, a professor at the University of Utah.

Adler has been studying the Colorado River for decades. He says one of the biggest issues with the water supply is how it's divided between states.

“The fundamental problem is that the Colorado River Compact that came out of those negotiations allocated too much water. It allocated 16.5-to-17.5 million acre-feet of water. But over the course of the 20th century the average flows were about 15 million acre-feet,” said Adler.

And it's not just the drinking supply.

Water from the river system is used to water millions of acres of farmland.

Those farms and ranches are responsible for nearly 15% of the country's crop and livestock production.

Lakes in many states across the U.S. are experiencing lower than average lake levels.

Three out of every four states in the country are experiencing drought or near-drought conditions including what scientists have referred to as a "mega drought".

“It’s unprecedented in terms of the recorded history of these reservoirs,” said Dan McEvoy, a climatologist with the Desert Research Institute.

He says even if we have a good winter of precipitation, other issues may prevent the dams from refilling.

“Last year there was 80-90% of average snowpack in the upper Colorado River and Lake Powell got less than 50% of average runoff,” said McEvoy.

He says because of rising temperatures runoff from snowpack is all being absorbed by dry soil and it’s not making it to the river basin and reservoirs.

Conservation among people has been ongoing for years, but some are asking the agriculture industry to do more to conserve water.

“We could meet agricultural needs by switching to more water-efficient crops, by using more efficient irrigation systems, by valuing water as highly as it ought to be,” said Adler.

Right now, it’s estimated agriculture uses 80% of the water from the river basin. The hope is a reduction in use could help refill the reservoirs.