Western US faces water and power shortages due to climate change, UN warns

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The two largest reservoirs in the United States are at “dangerously low levels,” threatening the supply of fresh water and electricity in six states and Mexico, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both man-made reservoirs on the Colorado River, are currently at their lowest levels on record, due in part to an ongoing drought exacerbated by climate change.

“Conditions in the American West, which we see around the Colorado River basin, have been so dry for more than 20 years that we no longer speak of drought,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt, an ecosystem expert at UNEP. “We call it ‘desiccation’ – a new, very dry normal.”

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The river is also struggling due to overconsumption due to a growing population and an outdated agreement guaranteeing allotments for neighboring countries. The reservoirs provide water for agricultural and residential use in Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada and New Mexico.

If conditions don’t improve, Lake Mead and Lake Powell run the risk of reaching “dead pool” status, in which the water is so low that it no longer flows from a reservoir. That would shut down the hydroelectric dams that power millions of western US residents

“We’re talking about a 20-year period of drought-like conditions with an increasing demand for water,” Bernhardt said. “These conditions are alarming, and especially in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead regions, it’s the perfect storm.”

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The Hoover Dam water intake towers at Lake Mead, July 12, 2022 near Boulder City, Nev. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Falling water levels have been a concern for US officials for some time now. In June, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that maintaining “critical levels” at Lake Mead and Lake Powell in water supplies.

“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating and the moment of reckoning is near,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said during the Senate hearing.

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Falling water levels in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, have left three dead bodies buried underwater for a long time.

Restrictions on the use of water have already been introduced. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District in June, usually limiting outdoor water to one or two days a week.

A formerly sunken boat is displayed on Saddle Island on July 28, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.  (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A formerly sunken boat is displayed on Saddle Island on July 28, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The drought in the West has had a number of effects in recent years, including unusually poor wildfire seasons.

Climate scientists say disruptions to the water cycle, especially drought, will become more frequent as a result of rising global temperatures.

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