For the first time ever, there’s an official water shortage at the largest water reservoir in the U.S. On Monday, officials declared the shortage at Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead which, along with the Colorado river, serves 40 million people in the West.
According to the Associated Press, water levels at the reservoir have fallen to record lows. Along its perimeter, a white “bathtub ring” of minerals outlines where the high water line once stood, underscoring the unique water challenges for a region facing a growing population and a drought that is made more dangerous by hotter, drier weather.
This new declaration will trigger mandatory cuts to water use starting January 1, 2023. California, Arizona and Nevada all tap water from Lake Mead. Based on federal guidelines for shortages brokered in 2019, Arizona will lose 18% of its annual apportionment of water, while Nevada will lose 7% and Mexico, which also gets water from the watershed, will lose 5% of its share. California won’t face cuts just yet—according to The Verge, it has stronger water rights under complex water sharing agreements.
One of the worst droughts in decades continues to plague the Western United States. Back in June, it was already “the most exceptional drought that we’ve ever shown on the map in the Western U.S.,” according to a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who creates maps for the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought has grown worse since then, and now affects a whopping 95% of the West.
According to NPR, farmers in central Arizona, who are among the state’s largest producers of livestock, dairy, alfalfa, wheat and barley, will bear the brunt of the cuts. Their allocation comes from water deemed “extra” by the agency that supplies water to much of the region, making them the first to lose it during a shortage.
Can it be reversed? It doesn’t look great. Water levels at the reservoir have been falling since 1999 due to the dry spell enveloping the West and increased water demand. And with weather patterns only expected to worsen, experts say the reservoir may never be full again.
↦ FYI: Lake Mead now contains about 12 million acre-feet of water, far below its capacity of nearly 30 million acre-feet.