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Drought drains critical US water supply

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A huge volume of fresh water has disappeared from the drought-struck south west of the US in the past decade in what researchers say is a startling sign of the fragility of one of the country’s most important water supplies.

Almost 65 cubic kilometres of water has been lost since late 2004 from the Colorado River Basin, an area roughly the size of France that is a vital but heavily used source of water for more than 30m people and 4m acres of farmland.

The amount lost was nearly double the volume of the Colorado River’s Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the US, according to a study by scientists using data from Nasa satellites that can measure changes in water levels.

“This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking,” said the study’s lead author, Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine.

More than 75 per cent of the loss was due to the rapid depletion of groundwater from underground aquifers that many farmers depend on for irrigation, especially during droughts like the one that has afflicted parts of the south west for the last 14 years.

The researchers found the rate of decline of groundwater, much of which is non-renewable and poorly managed, was roughly six times greater than the losses in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, another large reservoir further upstream on the Colorado River.

“Groundwater is already being used to supplement the gap between surface water supply and basin water demands,” said study co-author, Jay Famiglietti, adding the study revealed a surprisingly high and prolonged reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between demand and supply.

“The water security of the western United States may be at greater risk than is fully appreciated,” he said.

Groundwater supplies are often far less well documented than more easily observable lakes and rivers. The use of Nasa satellites has helped researchers improve their understanding of the extent of these losses worldwide.

Lake Mead, Las Vegas’s main source of water, has been a highly visible victim of the drought. Its levels have fallen so much for so long that it has a prominent white ‘bathtub ring’ of exposed rock around its edges.

It has been falling by a foot a week in recent months and earlier this month fell to its lowest level since it was formed in the 1930s by the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Authorities are spending more than $800m to tunnel under Lake Mead to maintain access to water because the stunted flow of the Colorado River means the lake has shrunk so much that two higher tunnels may no longer be able to channel water to Las Vegas and other cities.

The rapid rates of groundwater depletion are likely to lead to further falls in Colorado River stream flows.

The study’s authors say declines in the snowpack that feeds the river, and population growth, could threaten the long-term ability of the Colorado River Basin to meet water allocation commitments to the seven basin states, which includes California, and to Mexico.


18 Comments on "Drought drains critical US water supply"

  1. Dredd on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 7:10 am 


    And on top of that they want to build an oil pipeline over it.

    A leaky dirty oil pipeline carrying tar sands goop.

  2. Kenz300 on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 8:21 am 

    One more reason to switch to wind and solar power plants.

    Oil, coal and nuclear power plants use a lot of water to generate electricity.

    Wind and solar — not so much……………..

  3. JuanP on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 8:33 am 

    I have been following drought reports and news for several years by now. At some point in the evolution of my understanding of Global Warming and Climate Change, I reached the conclusion that mega droughts are probably our worst potential enemy.
    I think farmers like Davy and Pops have an edge on the rest of us, tap people.
    There was a serious drought in the Amazon basin a few years ago that altered my perspective on the subject. It lasted three to five years in some parts and killed many of the top canopy trees, which was unprecedented in our modern experience. It came very close to almost killing large parts of the jungle.
    I realized at that point that mega droughts could destroy not just arid places, but also the largest, wettest land ecosystem on the planet. If droughts could kill the Amazon, they can destroy any ecosystem, I figured, and that scared me.
    We should all plan and prepare for terrible droughts, I fear they will be part of the GW and CC package.

  4. JuanP on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 9:24 am 

    I meant to say farmers have an edge on knowledge of this subject, because farmers live closer to nature and rain patterns.
    It was one of those my hands skipped over part of my mind’s thoughts to try and keep up with it moments.

  5. J-Gav on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 10:02 am 

    Agreed JuanP. A key question is: “Is there any good reason to believe the water problem is going to become less threatening rather than more threatening?” I’m afraid the answer isn’t particularly comforting.

    Of course, it could be said that other threats are vying for the position of the worstest of the worstest: the dwindling of pollinators, micro-organisms and other species which hold entire ecosystems together; financial/economic collapse; major flooding or seismic events which create multiple Fukushimas, World War, etc … Pick your poison …

    Let’s just cross our fingers that we don’t get convergence of two or more of those!

    Notice I said ‘cross our fingers,’ not ‘twiddle our thumbs.’ Starting from awareness of the threats, then preparing as best you can (which means different things for people in different situations …) is about all we can do I guess and you’re right, some people have a good headstart there.

  6. Davy on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 10:04 am 

    Juan we have seeded 1/3 of our acerage to drought tollorant warm season grasses. I have a year round spring and decent size lakes that have never gone dry. This will help. You are so correct drought is the meanest of all disasters being slow and insidious. As a one time grain farmer we always said rain makes grain when referring to flood years and drought years we say shit out of luck.

  7. Plantagenet on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 10:42 am 

    How bad can the drought be? All the posh golf courses for the 1% in California and across the west are still lush and green, and amply supplied with water hazards. All the swimming pools behind millions of homes are still filled. All the car washes are busy.

  8. ghung on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 12:40 pm 

    I’ve recently joined CoCoRaHS (“Volunteers working together to measure precipitation across the nation.”), something some of you may be interested in. I’ll begin submitting reports tomorrow. CoCoRaHS strives to fill the gaps between official reporting stations, though looking at the map, there don’t seem to be many volunteers in the Colorado River Basin. Perhaps dry wells and riverbeds, and watching the reservoirs dropping tells folks all they need to know; those that give it any thought.

    h ttp:// – Order their official rain gauge for about 30 bucks.

  9. Norm on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 3:43 pm 

    even scarier, the author treated ‘area’ and ‘volume’ as synonyms. (65 cubic kilometers = area of france). Everybody is a retard these days, no wonder the water well ran dry and nobody smart enough to complain.

  10. JuanP on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 3:54 pm 

    Norm, I am afraid you misunderstood the paragraph you criticized. Go back and read it again. He says the Colorado basin has an area equivalent to France.

  11. Richard Ralph Roehl on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 6:18 pm 

    Back in WWII, there were 140 million people living in faster poo-food Amerika. Today (70+ years later) there are 315+ million CONSUMER citizens in Amerika! Yessssss… and almost twenty million of them are surviving in the Los Angeles basin. Think about it. Almost 20,000,000 consumers showering every day in L.A.

    Phuck! Phuck! Hooray!

    What to do? Well… as a member of the ‘Anarchist $ociety’, we endorse the Pope’s protocols to stop all birth control on the planet. And we also preach the capitalist-fascist gospel of perpetual growth.

  12. synapsid on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 6:24 pm 


    Which oil pipeline is that? Is it to connect with Utah oil sands?

  13. DMyers on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 7:10 pm 

    Areas and/or volumes aside, it really does look bad, even in the near term. But we simply won’t relent. Someone’s going to come along and solve this whole thing, anyway. That’s the lullaby.

    The following are some potential solutions, if we have the resolve to go forward and conquer Nature, once and for all.

    1. Cut a canal from Lake Michigan to Arizona. That would buy a few days and would amount to a displacement of Michigan’s rain to Arizona, as the task of refilling Lake Michigan would be stymied by the the persistent drain into the desert.

    2. Build a water bucket conveyor between Mars and Earth and add Mars water to the existing stock.

    3. Invent an abundant water substitute.

    4. Genetically engineer plants and animals that thrive without water.

    5. Line the entire west coast with true believers, chanting in unison, “El Niño! La Niña! El Niño! La Niña!…”

    6. Employ Haliburton to cut chunks of ice from Antarctica and helicopter them to Los Angeles in insulated ice boxes.

    7. Look for an additional Ogallala Aquifer located under the now exhausted Ogallala that we know.

    The possibilities are there. We only need to go forward with a positive mind.

  14. clueless on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 7:45 pm 

    America should build an altar and offer sacrifices like shitty and idiot peeps,like the Kardashians, the cast of Jersey Shores, the Real Wives of this and that locations. your senators and stupid congressmen, and practically all the morons of the politics , the military, the dems and the reps, and lastly all the sheeple who drive SUVs and play golf, and swimming pool owners, and etc.etc….TO GOD to bring the much needed rain and fill your buckets. LOL.

    English is my 2nd language..sorry for the grammar.

    BTW, water is being rationed now in some parts of California where i live, and Detroit got water shut offs.

  15. Makati1 on Sat, 26th Jul 2014 9:21 pm 

    From desert to desert…

  16. R1verat on Sun, 27th Jul 2014 7:47 am 

    I live in the same state as Davy & Pops. In my area we are entering the 3rd summer of drought conditions. I have a well & have been trying to keep critical plants alive by supplemental watering. However this is an exercise in futility, as how much can one water?

    Last year many mature trees statewide died. Of the 800 trees I planted on my small acreage, I would say those I could not water (at least 90%) have all died.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the beginning of the future, with climate change. A small glimpse of what life will be. Not a happy thought. I can only hope I am very very wrong.

  17. Davy on Sun, 27th Jul 2014 8:09 am 

    RR, that great MO river I understand you live by is a great asset in a time of drought!

  18. PrestonSturges on Mon, 28th Jul 2014 4:13 pm 

    I just wanted to say that I left a small jujube tree unwatered in a pot and it looked totally dead and crispy for a month, then it rained and it has burst out new growth all over.

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