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Water shortages in West likelier than previously thought

In this July 20, 2014, file photo, a bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near Hoover Dam on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher,File)

In this July 20, 2014, file photo, a bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near Hoover Dam on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

There’s a chance water levels in the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States could dip to critically low levels by 2025, jeopardizing the steady flow of Colorado River water that more than 40 million people rely on in the American West.

After a relatively dry summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released models on September 15 suggesting looming shortages in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored — are more likely than previously projected.

Compared with an average year, only 55% of Colorado River water is flowing from the Rocky Mountains down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line. Due to the below-average runoff, government scientists say the reservoirs are 12% more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring.

“This is a pretty significant increase over what was projected in April due to the declining runoff this year,” hydrologist Carly Jerla said.

The forecast could complicate already-fraught negotiations between Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico over future shares of the river that supplies their cities and farms. Those talks will draw up new agreements by 2026 over use of the river that’s under siege from climate change and prolonged drought.

Some urban and agricultural water users have been forced to conserve water to secure the river long term, but it remains over tapped. And as cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas keep growing, the region is only getting thirstier.

“We know that warmer temperatures have contributed to the drought of the last 21 years, and we know that they have exacerbated it,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said.

Unlike the 24-month projections that the agency uses to allocate water to the seven states and Mexico, the latest models simulate various weather and usage patterns to help water users prepare for different scenarios.

Scientists use what’s called the Colorado River Simulation System to project future levels of the two reservoirs. They employed “stress testing” techniques based on river flows since 1988 to determine potential shortages if drought conditions persist.

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico agreed to cuts for the first time under a drought contingency plan signed last year. The water level in Lake Mead sits at 1,083 feet. When projections drop below 1,075 feet, Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by the plan.

Stress test models suggest a 32% chance that Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet by 2022 and a 77% chance by 2025. The model’s median estimates indicate Lake Mead will drop by 35 feet by 2026.

The water level in Lake Powell is at 3,598 feet, and estimates suggest it could drop by 50 feet by 2026.

Burman said the models provide valuable information to cities and farms preparing for the future as drought persists and average temperatures trend upward. She said drought contingency plans are an effective mechanism to address the projected shortages — for now.

“I think what the projections are showing us is we have greater uncertainty than we did last year,” she said.

Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


  1. I appreciate this article. More needs to be said about water shortages. But the title makes me wonder “previously thought” when? We have known since 1970 that we would have a water problem someday. Even then some people tried to conserve. But of course that was before the huge population growth of non-desert people. They read and heard of a future water shortage, but took the typical American attitude of letting someone else worry about it. And now, people will read this article and do nothing, expecting government and businesses to take care of it. They will start conserving when they turn on the faucet and nothing comes out.

  2. I agree. My father was told in 1980 that there was a 100 year guaranteed water supply when he bought his home here. It’s 2020 and the lie is still being told to potential buyers.

    Change starts with one person. Start attending virtual meetings of your local Board of Supervisors and make public comments about this article for one. No excuses, all are recorded and on YouTube. Attend your Zoning and Planning Commission meetings and see how many developers are being allowed to cram as many homes as possible into the least amount of space available telling people the same lie they told my dad.

    Then there’s the Saudi Arabian alfalfa farms to the east of us sucking up water by the gallons
    and shipping the crop back to their country so they don’t use their precious water. Now lets talk about all the useless grass that people keep growing. Most of our residential water is wasted on fruit trees, lawns and landscaping.

    “Water It or Drink It” is my motto. Wake up Arizona. The water wars have already begun.

    I’m originally from Michigan, The Great Lakes State, a WARNING to all the great lakes states, we’ll be coming for it, the water that is, mark my words.

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