Study: Climate Change May Dry Up Important U.S. Reservoirs Like Lake Powell And Lake Mead

Lake Mead and Hoover Dam water intake towers, with previous water level, July 2009. (Photo credit: Cmpxchg8b)

As climate change makes the regions of the West, Southwest, and Great Plains warmer and drier, water demand will continue to increase, and the combined effect will place an ever greater burden on the country’s fresh water supplies — possibly completely draining important reservoirs in those areas, under some scenarios. That’s according to a new study authored by researchers with Colorado State University, Princeton and the U.S. Forest Service, and flagged yesterday by Summit County Citizens Voice.

This is consistent with other studies on the risk of future water shortages: The Department of the Interior is anticipating that by 2060 the gap between river supply and water demand in the states of the Colorado River Basin will be 3.2 million acre feet due to climate change. Research published in Environmental Science and Technology found that by 2050 one third of U.S. counties could face “high” or “extreme” risk of water shortage. And the International Energy Agency determined that if current policies remain in place, fresh water use by the energy industry alone could more than double — from 66 to 135 billion cubic meters annually by 2035.

Climate change, substantially driven by global warming and humanity’s carbon emissions, is anticipated to lead to more weather extremes in various areas — longer periods of low precipitation and water shortage in many areas, interspersed with greater deluges. And, of course, higher average temperatures to bake the same regions as they dry out. The Forest Service study used a number of different scenarios in its models, assuming different levels of future population growth, economic growth, and temperature increases:

[F]uture climate change will increase water use for agricultural irrigation and landscape maintenance in response to rising plant water requirements, and at thermoelectric plants to accommodate rising electricity demands for space cooling. Including these effects, per-capita withdrawals are projected to drop only moderately for the next few decades and then level off as the effects of climate change become greater, and total withdrawals are projected to rise nearly continuously into the future. Projected withdrawals differ across the global emissions scenarios examined, especially in the latter decades of the century.

Although precipitation is projected to increase in much of the United States with future climate change, in most locations that additional precipitation will merely accommodate rising evapotranspiration demand in response to temperature increases. Where the effect of rising evapotranspiration exceeds the effect of increasing precipitation, and where precipitation actually declines, as is likely in parts of the Southwest, water yields are projected to decline. For the United States as a whole, the declines are substantial, exceeding 30% of current levels by 2080 for some scenarios examined.

Here’s just one example of several permutations the study did, laying out the changes in future water yields in 2020, 2040, 2060 and 2080. The A1B scenarios were relatively middle-of-the-road, assuming medium population growth, high economic growth, and medium temperature increases in the future:

And here’s the projected changes in annual water consumption under that same permutation, accounting for the effects of climate change:

In some key areas, including the Southwest, parts of California, and the central and southern Great Plains, “important reservoirs are left with little or no water” in some scenarios. In the Colorado River Basin, for instance, “Lakes Powell and Mead are projected to drop to zero and only occasionally thereafter add rather small amounts of storage before emptying again.”

In many ways the problem is already beginning to bite. It looks like the historic droughts that have wracked the West, the Southwest and the Plains areas for the last two years may very well continue through the spring and summer. And Texas and Oklahoma, plus Texas and New Mexico, are involved in suits over rights to water use and river flows — with the latter dispute scheduled to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“We were surprised to find that climate change is likely to have a much greater effect on future water demands than population growth,” Forest Service research economist Tom Brown, who led the study along with CSU’s Jorge A. Ramirez, told Summit County Citizens Voice. “The combined effects of climate change on water supply and demand could lead to serious water shortages in some regions.”

20 Responses to Study: Climate Change May Dry Up Important U.S. Reservoirs Like Lake Powell And Lake Mead

  1. TOM TERRIFIC says:

    We,as a species, are in the unique situation of not only being able to witness,but also being the cause of our own EXTINCTION!!

  2. Brooks Bridges says:

    If you haven’t seen it, a terrific post in Rolling Stones by Bill McKibben.

    About far more than just divestment. A quote:

    ” In the past, just a lonely few, like NASA’s James Hansen, were willing to go to jail, but in November, the premier scientific journal, Nature, published a commentary urging all climate scientists to “be arrested if necessary” because “this is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence.” In December, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union where most of the year’s cutting-edge climate studies are released, one panel examined the question “Is Earth Fucked?” The scientist leading the session finished by saying probably – but “if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.””

  3. Ozonator says:

    However, in the land of Bobby Jindal, we are going through the wettest winter in history. The Western States are coveting the water of the Great Lakes instead of the polluted waters of Jindalstan.

  4. Jacob says:

    To piggy-back upon that, we deny (and in some quarters mock) it all while it’s happening.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I thought that the emptying of Lakes Mead and Powell was a fait accompli, just a matter of time. Don’t worry, though-the client regime in Canada will sell you all the water you require.

  6. Jim Baird says:

    A study lead by Yadu Pohkrel determined the pumping of aquifers for irrigation has caused the sea to rise by an average of .77 millimetres every year since 1961,” which is about 42 percent of the total.

    In the mean time a study lead by Professor Diana Allen, earth sciences, Simon Fraser University, points out climate change will bring winter rains to the province of British Columbia that will come so hard and fast that much of the fresh water that might have replenished groundwater simply runs off into the ocean.

    A remedy to this miss match is suggested at

  7. Ozonator says:

    via Keystone, EssoKochs’ filling station restrooms, and bottled-water drinking Senator Theodeusette Cruz?

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    Warning of ‘global suicide,’ Ban calls for revolution to ensure sustainable development

    28 January 2011 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called for “revolutionary action” to achieve sustainable development, warning that the past century’s heedless consumption of resources is “a global suicide pact” with time running out to ensure an economic model for survival.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    N. America has enjoyed luxurious amounts of cheap water and severe, strict water restrictions may, for some, be the first sign that their world has irrevocably changed, until it all falls apart that is, ME

  10. Mark E says:

    Marlboro man to start selling lettuce?

    Jim’s basic idea…. pipe rainfall from BC Canada to US farms to replace water now pumped from aquifers…. is interesting and at least merits some deep thinking.

    HOWEVER…. I was flabbergasted to hear Jim suggest that Canada should offer to sell the water as a bribe for US approval of the Keystone pipeline.

    Jim, my man, that’s exactly like Marlboro trying to prop up tobacco sales by including heads of lettuce with each pack of smokes.

  11. Jim Baird says:

    Mark my focus is addressing the sea level problem. Capturing runoff before it reenters the oceans is one of six tools for doing this. In BC we are deluged each winter with water Nature’s has been gracious enough to desalinate for us and it seems only logical we should market this excess. Otherwise Kennedy Lake will ultimately become part of the Pacific as will a good part of the Fraser Valley which is our breadbasket. The reality is though such transfers are currently prohibited. The BC government is set on selling LNG and Ottawa bitumen. I don’t agree but am pragmatic enough to understand they will do their damdest so practical offsets are required.

  12. Mark E says:

    Sea level rise in the pipeline
    is a 9mm bullet speeding at your chest

    Freshwater piping from BC
    is a vest made from tinfoil

    Development of Alberta tar sands
    will fire a 30cal bullet at our chest

    This is so absurd that I paused to contemplate why you might try to argue this is “practical”. Follow the money! Earlier you were trying to drum up interest in your patented financial stake in OTEC via advocating piping desalinated ocean water into desert basins. Now its piping fresh water through the mountains and across a continent.

    This ain’t no “offset” for developing the tar sands. Now if you want to talk about wind or solar powered fresh water piping, we may be onto something, I don’t know. But we’d be very foolish to try to slow a 69mm sea level rise with a tinfoil shield at the expense of also being shot by a 30cal Alberta tar sands bullet

  13. Mark E says:

    shoulda looked up bullets. If what we have now is a 9mm hand gun cartridge coming at us, adding tar sands makes it more like this one

  14. jk says:

    Well, In January Nature published an editorial supporting the pipeline and stating that oil from tar sands is “not as dirty from a climate perspective as many believe.” Here’s an excerpt from the Jan 28 editorial:

    “[R]egarding the Keystone pipeline, the administration should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve it. As Nature has suggested before (see Nature 477, 249; 2011), the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that. Nor is oil produced from the Canadian tar sands as dirty from a climate perspective as many believe (some of the oil produced in California, without attention from environmentalists, is worse).Tar-sands development raises serious air- and water-quality issues in Canada, but these problems are well outside Obama’s jurisdiction.
    By approving Keystone, Obama can bolster his credibility within industry and among conservatives. The president can also take advantage of rising domestic oil and gas production to defuse concerns over energy security. And the fact that US emissions are apparently dropping, thanks to the economic crisis and the ongoing shift from coal to gas for electricity generation as well as state and federal policies, further plays into his hands. But all will be for naught unless the president can build on these trends and somehow reset the climate discussion.”

    So much for a coherent position from Nature.

  15. Joan Savage says:

    Although there are primary sources of information on the reservoirs’ water levels, a retired scientist has a blog site that supplies an up-to-date graph of historic and present Lake Mead conditions that is the best I’ve seen.

    Note that the period 2007-present is the longest period that Lake Mead has been near, or more commonly within, the drought category since the reservoir was filled in 1938-9.

  16. Joan Savage says:

    Imagine Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco turning off all non-essential lighting at 1 am each night, an energy conservation plan that Paris plans to implement in July.

  17. Jim Baird says:

    A lot of vitriol and gun references here. Hmmmm

  18. Mark E says:

    If that’s the label you apply to your own self-enrichment at the expense of ecological wisdom, I can live with that.

  19. Daniel Coffey says:

    Although I think that time period and conduct is very interesting, we might find it better to turn off and reduce all non-essential uses in the daytime and all hours around the clock. Kids should nag their parents to shut off all such usage.

  20. Daniel Coffey says:

    It seems that we are really and clearly over the cliff. We have delayed too long in our response to global warming by failing to decarbonize electricity production and electrify transportation by rapidly deploying and using large-scale solar PV, wind, geothermal. Instead, we played games, studied, and endlessly debated frivolous matters.