APU Editor's Pick Environmental Original

A Megadrought in the West Spurs Water Security Concerns

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Lake Mead, our nation’s largest reservoir, has reached an all-time low for water levels. According to NBC News reporter Denise Chow, water levels at Lake Mead have hit their lowest levels since the lake’s creation in 1937, adding to concerns about its ability to remain a viable water supply as the western United States endures a megadrought.

Situated on the Colorado River, Lake Mead extends along the Arizona-Nevada border and was created when the Hoover Dam was built in the early 1930s. It supplies water to millions of people across Arizona, Nevada, California and parts of Mexico.

Why Are Reservoirs Important?

The Colorado River has several reservoirs that are used for both storage and hydropower generation. Historically, the water levels in Lake Mead are lowered in the spring to make room for the spring runoff, which prevents flooding on the lower Colorado River.

The water that enters the reservoirs during the spring is stored in the lake. It is used later in the year for power generation and enhances downstream river flows, which is helpful for endangered species of fish when the water level on the Colorado River drops later in the summer and fall. Water from Lake Mead is also used in the Colorado River Basin for irrigation in the spring, summer and fall.

A Water Shortage Declaration Is Imminent

The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to announce the first-ever water shortage declaration that will prompt cuts in Arizona and Nevada. This water shortage will cost “tens of millions” of dollars and will require other locations to extend launch ramps, parking, docks, sanitation facilities, and water and electrical systems to accommodate lowering lake levels.

Satellite imagery has captured the dramatic water level reduction from 2020 to 2021. It vividly illustrates lower reservoir levels and a parched landscape.

What Is a Megadrought?

A megadrought is a prolonged period of below-normal water levels and consumption. If drought is explained as an imbalance between available and needed water, then a megadrought is this imbalance lasting for at least 20 years.

A Columbia University research study of many trees across the western U.S. since the year 800 shows four megadroughts that occurred in the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s and the late 1500s. The U.S. will most likely record its worst drought in 1,200 years in 2021.

There are many negative impacts of a megadrought. For instance, dry soil leads to lower crop yields, and dry brush will result in faster-spreading wildfires. Columbia University’s research has also tied catastrophic, naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to social upheavals among indigenous medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest.

US States Affected by the Megadrought

The megadrought is affecting more than the Colorado River Basin. California, for instance, is experiencing its worst drought in four years.

As water levels continue to fall, California farmers have left large portions of their fields unseeded. The state’s $50 billion agriculture industry supplies over 25% of the nation’s food supply. Consequently, we may experience sharp increases in meat, produce and dairy products.  In addition, the upper Midwest experienced its worst fire season in history.

Utah has experienced one of its driest years in history; over 90% of the state has extreme drought. The drought has also primed the state for a severe fire season, and there have already been 326 reported fires to date.

Water Security Is Important

Access to water is critical on multiple levels. Water security is fundamental to all human endeavors, and people across the globe face challenges of too much, too little, or extreme variations in their water supply.

There are many ways to define water security. First, the Sustainable Water Partnership defines water security as “the adaptive capacity to safeguard the sustainable availability of, access to, and safe use of an adequate, reliable and resilient quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and productive economies.”

In 2007, David Grey and Claudia Sadoff defined water security as “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks.”

In 2013, the United Nations UN-Water described water security as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

Preparation Is Key

So how do you prepare for drought and fires and aid the water security initiative? Here’s some suggestions.

The Colusa County Sun-Herald recommends these tips for handling droughts:

  • Determine the condition of your well.
  • Test water quality in your well regularly.
  • Stockpile enough bottled water for a minimum seven-day household supply.
  • Develop a family plan to address potential well outages.
  • Develop a plan to supply water for pets and livestock in case of a well outage.
  • Communicate drought preparedness plans to your neighbors and work together.

The Environmentor has multiple suggestions for handling fires:

  • Keep a list of where your important items are located in case an evacuation mandate is issued.
  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers and ignite.
  • Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
  • Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves, needles, or piles of firewood.
  • Create fuel breaks with driveways, walkways/paths, patios and decks.
  • Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches.
  • Remove ladder fuels (the vegetation under trees), so a surface fire cannot reach the top of the trees.
  • Tree placement should be planned to ensure the mature canopy is no closer than 10 feet from the edge of a structure.

Environmental Science Programs at the University

The University has a variety of environmental programs that have produced award-winning results. Our online master’s in environmental policy management covers areas such as environmental management tools, technological solutions, strategies, environmental economics, resource availability and qualitative/quantitative environmental data analysis.

Pursuing an online master’s degree offers many positive aspects including affordable cost, flexible schedules and world-class faculty. In addition, online learning allows you to learn from anywhere, which offers balance, faster completion and studying at a time that suits your schedule.

Understanding and Ensuring Water Security Is Key to International Stability

Overall, understanding and ensuring water security are the first steps in adapting to the multiple impacts of water supply challenges like a megadrought. Water is essential to the stability of every country on our planet. Understanding water security means looking beyond immediate supply to political, economic, social, and environmental impacts and finding a collective solution for our planet.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). She is the creator of the Professor S.T.E.A.M. Children’s Book Series, which brings tomorrow’s concepts to future leaders today. A global speaker, STE(A)M advocate, and STE(A)M communicator, she holds a B.S. in Meteorology and an M.S. in Meteorology and Water Resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in Public Administration from Nova Southeastern University. She is a faculty member in Transportation and Logistics for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business and specializes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in transportation, education, and technology.

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