R.I.P. Lake Mead, U.S. Southwest

Boaters on Lake Mead. (Photo by National Park Service.)Lake Mead has a 50-50 chance of becoming a dry lake bed by 2021, according to new research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UC San Diego.

Marine physicist Tim Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce reached that conclusion after analyzing the region’s current and planned water usage and taking into account the ongoing impact of climate change.

Furthermore, they acknowledge their projections are based on conservative estimates … meaning the prognosis for Lake Mead could be even worse than their study indicates. Even if the area implements current water-use mitigation plans, they warn, Lake Mead could still go dry.

“We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” Barnett said. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.”

Barnett and Pierce concluded that current conditions are creating a net deficit of almost 1 million of acre-feet of water — enough to meet the needs of about 8 million people — every year in the Colorado River system, which includes both Lake Mead and Lake Powell. That volume is likely to increase as a warming Earth causes more water evaporation, they add.

The Colorado River system supplies water to large parts of the Southwest, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.

Barnett’s and Pierce’s study also found there’s a one in 10 chance Lake Mead could go dry by 2014 … a mere six years from now. The researchers say there’s also a 50 percent chance that, by 2017, water levels will be too low to support hydroelectric power generation.

Projections like that make Las Vegas’ current mortgage crisis pains pale in comparison. Could an evaporating Lake Mead lead to the first wave of climate evacuees in the U.S.? Sad to say, we might know the answer in a few short years.

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