Report Sounds the Alarm for Western Reservoirs

Without more immediate, long-term reductions in water demand, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the West’s most important reservoirs, face imminent collapse.

2 minute read

July 27, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Dried-up marina at Lake Mead

A marina at Lake Mead languishes under drought conditions in 2015. | trekandshoot / Lake Mead marina

If Western states don’t make more drastic cuts to water use, Lake Powell and Lake Mead could “collapse,” writes Zak Podmore in the Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s according to a new, peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Science this week that analyzed how current agreements between basin users would fare if the 23-year trend of below-average runoff in the basin continues.”

According to the report, it “is clear that the current drought planning measures won’t cut it alone since the federal government had to enact emergency actions last April to send more water than usual into Lake Powell.”

The paper offers some recommendations based on an analysis of several scenarios. “One of many possible solutions the team identified looked at what would happen to the reservoirs if the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico agreed to give up water development ambitions, while the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, along with northwest Mexico, agreed to reductions.” If the Upper Basin limits its water use to 4 million acre-feet per year and the Lower Basin agreed to 2 million acre-feet in cuts per year, the water system could be stabilized.

Kevin Wheeler, lead author of the study, noted that if low-runoff years continue, the situation will become more dire, fast. “Last month, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton announced that the seven basin states had 60 days to present plans to protect reservoir levels by making between 2 and 4 million acre-feet in water cuts by next year. Touton added that the federal government is prepared to make the reductions if the states cannot agree to a plan.”

The situation has led to tension between regions. While Lower Basin states use twice as much water as their northern neighbors, numerous projects proposed in Upper Basin states would increase their water demand. According to Wheeler, “water managers should be planning for a possible continuation of the Millennium Drought, which has reduced Colorado River flows by an average of 20% compared to the previous century’s average.”

Earlier this year, experts warned that the water level in Lake Powell had dropped to within 33 feet of the critical minimum needed to continue producing electricity.

Thursday, July 21, 2022 in Salt Lake Tribune

stack of books

Planetizen’s Top Planning Books of 2023

The world is changing, and planning with it.

November 24, 2023 - Planetizen Team

Close-up of 'Red Line Subway Entry' sign with Braille below and train logo above text in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago Red Line Extension Could Transform the South Side

The city’s transit agency is undertaking its biggest expansion ever to finally bring rail to the South Side.

November 24, 2023 - The Architect's Newspaper

Diagram of visibility at urban intersection.

How ‘Daylighting’ Intersections Can Save Lives

Eliminating visual obstructions can make intersections safer for all users.

November 27, 2023 - Strong Towns

Aerial view of San Jose, California downtown at night.

San Jose Affordable Housing Development Gains Approval

A proposed project is moving forward with reduced building heights and all-affordable units.

2 minutes ago - The Mercury News

Green painted bike lane protected by rown of parking.

Oklahoma City Begins Work on Parking-Protected Bike Lane

The project is part of the city’s broader plan to improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure and road safety.

1 hour ago - The Oklahoman

Blurred dense crowd of people with no recognizable faces walking in a busy city.

How Cities Can Avoid Perpetuating Segregation

Residents of big cities, known as the ‘melting pots’ of America, have fewer interactions with people outside their socioeconomic group than those in smaller communities, according to new research.

2 hours ago - Stanford News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

"Rethinking Commuter Rail" podcast & Intercity Bus E-News

Chaddick Institute at DePaul University

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.