Lake Mead: Running Dry

You need not go to the Middle East, North Africa or Southeast Asia, where there are already reported water shortages, to understand the value and scarcity of the life-giving liquid. Just look in America's own back yard. The American Southwest has been in a protracted drought for nearly a decade, with sinking water levels in lakes and rivers and decreasing snowpack in the mountains. And now a prominent scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, says that Lake Mead, which supplies water to 22 million people throughout the region, could be bone dry in just 13 years.

It may sound like the plot of an apocalyptic sci-fi flick, but Tim Barnett, a research marine geophysicist and climate expert at Scripps, says there's a 50 percent chance that the manmade lake, a reservoir created by Hoover Dam located on the Colorado River 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, will be dry by 2021, or even sooner if climate changes continue as expected and water use is not curtailed.

Barnett, lead author of a paper titled "When Will Lake Mead Go Dry"which will appear in the peer-reviewed journal Water Resources Research, published by the American Geophysical Union, says human demand and human-induced climate change are creating a net deficit of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River system, which includes Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Barnett talked to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the Lake Mead study, what it means for the Southwest, and what—if anything—can be done to save the lake. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When and why did you begin the Lake Mead study?
Tim Barnett: We started in earnest at the beginning of last summer. It was a curiosity-driven project. I just wanted to find out if things were this bad, and we quickly concluded that they are … We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was moving. It's not a scientific abstraction. This will impact every person living in the Southwest.

How were you actually able to determine that the lake could run dry by 2021?
Our analysis of Federal Bureau of Reclamation records of past water demand and calculations of scheduled water allocations and climate conditions indicate that the system could run dry, even if mitigation measures are implemented. We started from the level it is today. We know how much water is coming in and how much will go out, to the farmers, to the cities, etc. We also know the rate of transfer to Mexico: 1.5 million acre-feet per year. The final thing we added, which the Bureau of Reclamation does not add in, were evaporation and infiltration into the soil, which is 1.7 million acre-feet per year. We added up all these numbers and put in the prorated amount from climate change, and found we had a negative number. We were stunned.

The Lake Mead/Lake Powell system is a source of water for millions of people throughout the Southwest. How many people would be directly affected if Lake Mead ran dry?
Thirty million people, or more. Everyone in Southern California, everyone in the entire region would be affected.

What are some of the alternative sources of water for people in the region?
There is talk of building desalination plants along the coast in California. Arizona can pump water from under the ground, from beneath Phoenix and other areas, but that's fossil water that has been there a million years. The sources for water are obviously limited.

What kind of water wars might we see? Does your study look at the potential political and societal fallout from all of this?
No. We're scientists, not policy makers. We present the numbers and the timing for the problem. We're not the ones to solve it.

But what can we do to prevent this from happening? Is it preventable?
A lot of things will have to change, from a policy standpoint. Water rights will be an issue. Global warming is not preventable. This will happen compared to the time it would take us to impact the CO2 burden in the atmosphere. Adaptation is the word here. How will our desert Southwest civilization adapt with a third less water from the Colorado River? Consumption, of course, is something that can always be changed … It is a complicated situation. Everyone in this debate will have a self-serving interest … I spent a year in Montana, and there's an old saying there that you can put your wallet on the road and it will be there a week later, but if you have a cup full of water, your neighbor will do what he can to find it and take it.

Has there been opposition or resistance to some of your findings with regard to global warming and its effects?
No, none that I am aware of. But I caught on early to the people in the White House who were changing things, funding alleged scientists, the political connections. These guys have been outed by now, but they are still around. They say no, no, no, but we show them evidence, we bring up the fact that there have been some 20,000 papers written on climate change and they don't have any evidence to back up their claims.

What impact might this have on agriculture, which obviously uses a large amount of water?
Agriculture still uses 75 to 80 percent of the water from that area. In California agriculture is the number one industry. How far do you go cutting its throat? How will you get the water? This is something that people will have to work on to develop a strategy for the future. There is simply a limited supply of water.

What kind of reaction do you expect there will be, both publicly and politically, to your troubling findings?
We've talked about it, but no one is quite sure. We know there will be media attention; that's part of my job. In terms of political fallout, I don't know the answer to that. I can't even imagine. Arizona won't take this as good news. People who live along the upper basin, the folks in Wyoming, Utah and those areas that are the most junior in the water rights agreements, will not be pleased.

Why haven't we heard about this before now?
It's surprising to us that someone hasn't run this flag up the flagpole before. But others, like Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, have been saying that the Colorado River will run out of water since the early 1990s. But no one has paid much attention to him. The Bureau of Reclamation said the reservoirs could be in trouble, but they've never said when. Marty Hoerling at NOAA (the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) in Boulder and a colleague looked at the soil moisture content and developed a river flow scheme. His answer was more severe than ours. But I don't know of another study that is as specific as ours.

How serious is this situation, in your opinion?
The people of Southern California and the desert Southwest are facing a water crisis that could well affect the sustainability of our culture as it is today in this region. The signals have been there for at least 20 years: less snow, warmer temperature in the mountains, less river runoff. The evidence has been here for some time; we just pulled all the data together.