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A "bathtub ring" is visible at sunset in July during low water levels at the Lake Mead reservoir due to the Western drought. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty images

For the first time since its construction in the 1930s, the federal government has formally declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir by volume, on the Colorado River.

Why it matters: The declaration, issued by the Bureau of Reclamation, sets in motion a series of water allocation cuts to downstream states along the Colorado River.

  • It also serves as a stark warning to a rapidly growing Southwest population that drought, heat and climate change are major threats to the region.

Driving the news: Lake Mead is at record low levels, having dropped below 1,075 feet above sea level, or 40% of capacity. The cuts come because the forecast lake level for 2022 is below that level as well.

The West has been mired in the worst drought of this century, and when viewed over several decades, scientists have found that the Southwest is locked in the grip of the first climate change-caused megadrought seen in the past 1,200 years.

  • The water level of Lake Mead has been on the decline since about 1999.
  • Hotter temperatures and a reduction to spring snowmelt has reduced the water flowing into the Colorado River from the Rockies, where the river begins, before winding its way into the Gulf of California. So too has burgeoning water demand from increasing populations and thirsty agricultural interests.
  • A series of agreements governs water use from the river, as well as the cuts to be implemented when the water levels dip below a certain threshold.

Details: Lake Powell’s levels also are on the decline, which poses a threat to the electricity generated by the Glen Canyon Dam, threatening the roughly 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity generated each year at the Glen Canyon Dam.

  • This first round of cuts is going to have the greatest impact on Arizona farmers, as the state will lose 18% of its share from the river, which translates to about 8% of the state's total water use, or 512,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is about enough water to cover an acre in a foot of water.)
  • Farmers in Arizona are likely to experience the brunt of the water cuts and may be faced with tough choices of letting their fields go fallow or tapping dwindling groundwater supplies or other alternate water sources.
  • Under the water allocation cuts, Nevada will lose about 7% of its allocation, or 21,000 acre-feet of water.
  • Mexico will see a reduction of roughly 5%, or 80,000 acre-feet.
  • According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Upper Colorado River Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average despite near-average snowfall last winter.
  • The Interior Department agency predicts the amount of water that would flow into Lake Mead without storage behind the dam is just 32% of average.

What they're saying: "It's clear that the scale and pace of climate change in the Colorado River Basin poses a huge threat to the water supplies on which everything depends," Kevin Moran, who leads the Colorado River program for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Axios.

  • “The Colorado River is the lifeblood of many Arizona cities, tribal communities, and generations of farmers who depend on it for water,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz). “The announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation is serious, but Arizona has prepared for these initial water curtailments through the Lower Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan."

Go deeper

Oct 25, 2021 - Axios Denver

Colorado predicted to have a warmer, drier winter

NOAA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios; Data: NOAA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The return of La Niña for the second straight year means winter in Colorado will bring warmer temperatures and less precipitation than normal, according to a new forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Why it matters: Dry conditions have fueled some of Colorado's most devastating wildfires, including last year's East Troublesome blaze, which raged for more than a month and destroyed nearly 194,000 acres.

Atmospheric river slams California, but La Niña winter looms

Data: NOAA; Map: Will Chase/Axios

The extreme atmospheric river pummeling parts of Northern California — attached to a record strong bomb cyclone, no less — may be a poor indicator of how this winter will treat the West.

Why it matters: With much of the West locked in the first climate change-related megadrought, with an especially pronounced dry period since 2020, hopes are pinned on the rain and mountain snow that could fall during the wet season.

Oct 25, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

From the archives: Minnesota's waterskiing contribution

Ralph Samuelson (right) poses with his original water skis in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota's spot in history as the birthplace of waterskiing might soon get some extra recognition.

Driving the news: Three members of Minnesota's congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig — recently introduced a resolution urging the Postal Service to create a commemorative stamp honoring next year's 100th anniversary of the sport.