JUL 30, 2021 9:18 AM PDT

Megadrought Brings Western US Lakes to Record Lows

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

The megadrought affecting the western United States is not letting up, even though the monsoon season has begun. The latest map from the US drought monitor indicates that about 95 percent of the West is in some stage of drought, and over 28 percent is in exceptional drought stage. Lakes throughout the West are hitting record lows. Since the depth of a lake can vary so much, a lake's height above sea level is used as a measure of how full it is.

Lake Powell is America's second largest reservoir, and it's now at the lowest level recorded since it was filled more than 50 years ago; its elevation is currently about 3,554 feet in elevation, which is about 33 percent of its full capacity. The surface of Lake Mead has fallen to historic lows as well. Businesses that rely on the lake, such as marinas, are having to drastically change or shut down operations. Lake Mead was last considered full in 2000, which shows how persistent this drought has been over time. The power being generated at the Hoover Dam is now down about 25 percent because the water levels are so low.

Utah's Great Salt Lake is also at the lowest level ever recorded, and that data goes back to 1847. The Salt Lake is expected to continue to lose water. Bird and shrimp populations that rely oon the lake are in decline. Some have begun to ask whether this is the worst drought in Utah's history. Although the answer to that question is complex, it is both yes and no; drought monitor records are at their worst but they don't go back as far as precipitation records. There are also now pipes that divert some of the Salt Lake's water that weren't always there.

In Utah, both reductions in snowpack and streams that feed the lake are contributing to the decline in the Salt Lake's level. Snow melting in the spring can typically add about two feet to the lake's elevation. But this year, only six inches came from that melting snow. The U.S. Geological Survey has also noted that gauges indicate that 77 of 122 streams that add water to the lake are below their normal flow rates.

At Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, trout are dying because of the heat and low levels of streams.

In Oregon, wells are running dry and people are having difficulty coping with water shortages. Officially, 117 wells have dried up in the Klamath River basin, but it's thought that as many as 300 could actually be dry. Homeowners are trying to dig deeper wells, or they're receiving water that's being trucked in by the state or donated to them by neighbors. Oklahoma will be sending over 350 water storage tanks to Oregon, where there is now a shortage of them.

Image credit: Pxfuel

Years of low rain and snow levels coupled with soaring temperatures and massive wildfires are evidence that the region's ecology is in the midst of major changes.

These problems are also not as easy to get out of once they become this serious. Research has shown that soil that's extremely dry can get so hard that water runs off, allowing it to be lost to us. It might also absorb too much moisture when it's stressed by drought. Water can also simply evaporate right into the air. It's also possible for snow to melt that way; it can sublime it's moisture directly into the atmosphere, and the snowpack adds even less water to the ground, rivers, or lakes.

When moisture moves into the atmosohere, it eventually falls back to Earth as snow or rain. But that precipitation may come down in areas that don't need it.

Patti Aaron, a US Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson, told the Associated Press that "we're expecting the reservoir to keep declining until November, then it should start to rebound,"


Sources: New York Times, AP News,

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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