ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We've been talking a lot about the historic four-year drought in California, but there's a much bigger problem facing the West, the 14-year drought gripping the Colorado River Basin. The snowpack in the Rocky Mountains is where the Southwest gets most of its water. And again this year it has had less than half of normal. One of the most stunning places to see the reality of this is at the nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. The reservoir is at the lowest it's been since it was built in the 1930s. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this report.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The moment the severity of this drought on the Colorado River hit home for Darlene Paige, she was standing at this vista point above the Hoover Dam on the Arizona side of Lake Mead.
DARLENE PAIGE: Just to see the rings around it, it's just - oh - it's kind of scary, you know?
SIEGLER: Page, a tourist from New York, is talking about the infamous bathtub ring around the rim of Lake Mead. Since about 2000, the levels have dropped 140 feet, exposing a white stain on the gravelly brown mountains above the water. It's forecast to drop another 10 feet by this summer.
PAIGE: What will happen if all this water's gone?
SIEGLER: That's unlikely to happen, at least in the short-term, but it's a question a lot of people in the West are asking nonetheless.
ROSE DAVIS: There are a lot of people, entities and critters that rely on this Colorado River water.
SIEGLER: Down the mountain on a walkway next to the Hoover Dam, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Rose Davis is pointing out the 10-story high towers that used to be mostly underwater.
SIEGLER: I'm a little afraid of heights here as I'm peering over.
SIEGLER: The lake's levels are reaching a critical trigger where the Bureau of Reclamation will start rationing water deliveries to Nevada, Arizona and parts of California. The biggest impact right away will be on agriculture.
DAVIS: The southern part of California and the southern part of Arizona are the vegetable breadbasket of this country. If you eat a salad for dinner tonight, you're eating a salad probably from California or from the Yuma, Ariz. area.
SIEGLER: The Colorado River and its reservoirs make the desert bloom. About 70 percent of all the water in this system goes to growing crops, vegetables, but also alfalfa and cotton. The river and its tributaries are also the main drinking water for 40 million people.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Cities of the Southwest are typically new and clean, cities largely without smoke. And so a vigorous, modern culture replaces that of a bygone age in the Southwest.
SIEGLER: Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego all grew up during what scientists now believe was a wet period - a relative anomaly in the West. Kumud Acharya studies the Colorado River at the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute. He says the situation out on Lake Mead right now is a glimpse of the future in the West.
KUMUD ACHARYA: And just seeing that - like, dry islands all popping up that didn't used to exist because of water going down, that's like a looking glass for problems everywhere.
SIEGLER: The Colorado River is already over-allocated. Acharya says in the long-term, the region needs to better understand whether climate change is the culprit behind a steady decline in the snowpack in the Rockies so water managers could better plan around shorter winters.
ACHARYA: You know, when we don't have water, we have to have these utilities that provide drinking water. They have to find water, bring that water from somewhere, whether it's a desalination project or whether it's from groundwater pumping, somewhere else. The cost is going to go up, you know, we just have to pay more.
SIEGLER: If there's any good news about this drought on the Colorado, it's that unlike in California, this one has been a disaster slow to unfold. You've had over a decade now of severely dry conditions with the occasional big snow winter here or there.
JOHN ENSMINGER: We've been living this for the last 15 years. We've been adapting for the last 15 years.
SIEGLER: This is John Ensminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. At a recent press conference, he touted the fact that Las Vegas has cut its water use by 40 percent during this drought on the Colorado.
ENSMINGER: So I do believe that Nevada is a poster child, if you will, for the rest of the nation. We have shown that you can grow your economy and use less water.
SIEGLER: But conservation can only go so far when your supply is shrinking fast. So the Authority is currently spending $1.5 billion to burrow a new tunnel even deeper down into Lake Mead. The old tunnels that suck water over to Las Vegas will dry up if the lake's level goes below 1,000 feet. Today it's at about 1,080 feet and falling. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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