Feb. 23, 2023

An almost dried-out lake with an old boat sticking out of the water.

A broken boat, which used to be underwater in Lake Mead now sits above the lake’s water line because of a decades-long megadrought, outside Boulder City, Nev., Feb. 2.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

By John Fleck

Mr. Fleck is an author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.”

LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — If the Colorado River continues to dwindle from the same arid trend of the last two decades, it could take as little as two bad drought years to drive the reservoir here on the Arizona-Nevada border to dead pool. That’s the term for levels so low that water can barely flow out of Hoover Dam.

Mead is already just 29 percent full, its lowest level since it began filling in the 1930s. But dead pool would be a true disaster for farms, towns and cities from San Diego to Denver that depend on water from Mead and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Powell, upstream on the Arizona-Utah border, is 23 percent full, the lowest since it filled in the 1960s. The precarious state of the two reservoirs is why the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called last year for deep cuts in water use — as much as 30 percent — from the seven states that depend on the river — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. But as a summer deadline to come up with a plan looms, the states are deadlocked.

Last month, six of the seven proposed a sweeping plan to share the burden and bring the river’s supply and demand into balance. But California, the river’s largest water user, refuses to play fair.

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