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Millions at risk of power and water shortages as two of nation’s largest reservoirs on brink of ‘dead pool’, UN warns

Millions of people in the western US are at risk of seeing reduced access to both water and electricity as two of the nation’s largest reservoirs continue to dry up inch by inch. The United Nations issued a warning on Tuesday that water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at an all-time low and are dangerously close to reaching “dead pool status.”

Such a situation means that water levels are so low that water cannot flow downstream to hydroelectric plants.

In the Lake Meadlocated in Nevada and Arizona, the largest man-made body of water in the country, the levels have dropped so low that it has practically become a graveyard – human remainsdried fish and a sunken boat dating back to World War II have so far been uncovered from beneath the now shallow waters. The walls of the lake are separated by two contrasting colors that reveal the line where the water once sat.

At maximum capacity, the lake should reach an elevation of 1,220 feet, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. On this day in 2020, Lake Mead was 1,084 feet above mean sea level. Today, it’s at 1,040. NASA said this could be the worse drought in the area in 12 centuries and that water levels must remain above 1,000 feet to continue to provide hydroelectric power at normal levels.

This composite shows the difference in water levels in Lake Mead from July 6, 2000 to July 3, 2022.

NASA Earth Observatory

Lake Powell, which is located in Utah and Arizona, is the second largest man-made reservoir in the country and faces a similar situation. The last time the lake was full was in 1999, but the water is dozens of feet lower than it was just last year. It was from Thursday only a quarter full.

Both lakes provide water and electricity to tens of millions of people in seven states, as well as irrigation water for agriculture.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s ecosystem expert Lis Mullin Bernhardt said conditions “have been so dry for more than 20 years that we are no longer talking about a drought”. Climate crisis and overconsumption of water to blame, says UN.

“We refer to it as ‘drying’ – a new very dry normal,” they said in a statement.

And even if there are water cuts to try to restore the supply, it may not be enough.

“Climate change is at the heart of the issue,” said UNEP’s North American Ecosystem Manager, Maria Morgado. “In the long term we need to address the root causes of climate change as well as water demands.”

These water demands are only exacerbated by the climate crisis, the UN said, as much of the country faces a brutal situation of more frequent and severe droughts and extreme heat.

“These conditions are alarming,” Bernhardt said, “and especially in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead area, it’s the perfect storm.”

The US is one of 23 countries to face drought emergencies between 2020 and 2022, according to drought exposure by the UN earlier this year. Water stress is “relatively high” in the country, with nearly three-quarters of available renewable water supplies being used each year. Along with the public health and infrastructure burden, this also creates an economic burden – in 2020, California lost between $10-20 billion to wildfires and droughts.

While droughts make up only about 15% of natural disasters, they cause 60% of deaths from extreme weather worldwide. In less than 30 years, scientists predict that more than three-quarters of the world’s population will be affected.

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