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Running dry: water shortages in the Colorado River

The Colorado River is a major source of water in the arid western United States. To support higher populations of people and development on such a finite resource, the Colorado River has been dammed and reservoirs have been created. One of the more famous reservoirs, Lake Mead, created by the Hoover Dam, is drying out. The reservoir is now only 35 percent full, the lowest it’s been since it was first filled in the 30’s.

This low point for the reservoir is part of a long-standing drought that is now in its 22nd year. Similar dry conditions may be the norm with climate change in the foreseeable future. Growing human populations and wasteful water practices have only thrown gasoline on the fire.

While water shortages in the American West are a surprise to no one, the drop in Lake Mead has caught the region unprepared and triggered water allotment cuts, causing ten state governors to ask President Biden to declare an emergency. Such a declaration would allow some farmers and ranchers access to federal assistance. 

Arizona will have its access to the Colorado River water reduced by 18 percent and Nevada will be reduced by 7 percent. Water released into Mexico under a treaty signed in 1944 will be reduced by 5 percent. 

Recently, small surges of Colorado River water have been able to reach the Gulf of California and wild habitats that have been under severe stress due to damming and water usage upstream. With water levels slated to drop even further in the coming years, it seems likely that these estuaries will suffer even more. 

Humans will also be forced to deal with the realities of this catastrophe of their own making. The first tier water cuts, set to impact Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, will possibly become more restrictive in the next phase, with more restrictions expected as soon as 2023.

It seems that in the West we may be coming to terms with a long legacy of water misuse and the new threat of a changing climate.         

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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