The megadrought hitting the western United States has yielded no shortage of horror stories to start the dry season. Record heat last week has seared in drought, turning the region from an already well-done steak into a charred crisp. Almond growers are ripping up orchards, and 17 million endangered salmon are being shipped to the sea because rivers are too hot to navigate. Horror stories abound.
But the toll of the megadrought is perhaps most visible in the state of reservoirs across the West, from California to Utah. Lake Mead hit a record low, touching a level not seen since the Hoover Dam was constructed. The images of boat docks sitting on now-dry land are visceral, but so too are the state of the West’s reservoirs from space.
The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite has captured astounding images of the West’s reservoirs. Earther has taken snapshots from 2020 and 2021 of a number of reservoirs in California as well as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest manmade reservoirs in the West, which millions depend on. These shocking images show how quickly water supplies have deteriorated, and the risks facing the region as the dry season ramps up.
Lake Mead has garnered most of the headlines as far as the West’s big reservoirs go, but Lake Powell has also undergone a shocking transformation. The lake sits along the Colorado River and straddles Utah and Arizona. As of Friday, it sat at just 34.73% of full capacity. Water levels are 138 feet (42 meters) below full. The above image shows a portion of the monster lake that covers 254 square miles (658 square kilometers) when full.
The portion of the lake sits in Utah, which is the most widely affected Western state when it comes to drought. Gov. Spencer Cox declared last weekend a “Weekend of Prayer” in an effort to combat the drought. As the image above shows, a higher power has a lot of work to do.
A Marina on Lake Powell
The marina in the image above sits in the small town of Wahweap, Arizona, just north of the Glen Canyon Dam. It’s a reminder that Lake Powell isn’t just a source of water, it’s also a big economic driver for the region when it comes to recreation (it is, after all, Lake Powell National Recreation Area). In 2019, the lake and nearby Rainbow Bridge National Monument drew 4.4 million visitors who spent $US427 ($548) million, according to the National Park Service, which manages both sites.
Many of the other reservoirs pictured are also recreation sites. The Great Shrinking of 2021 could very well impact the livelihoods of millions who live near them.
Lake Shasta is California’s largest reservoir. But right now, statistics kept by the state show it sits at just 42% of capacity. While it wasn’t at full capacity in 2020, as evidenced by a very sharp shoreline visible in the satellite images above, water levels have clearly plunged in 2021.
The reservoir is in Shasta County, one of the hardest-hit parts of California. A blob of exceptional drought — the worst category included in the Drought Monitor — runs from the Bay Area to Shasta County in Northern California. All told, a third of the state is in “exceptional” drought while another 53% of the state is in the second-worst category of “extreme” drought.
By percentage, Folsom Lake is California’s most imperiled reservoir. State data show it’s at just 35% capacity. That puts it a shade below Lake Oroville, the reservoir seen in the first slide that’s just 36% full.
The comparison above shows an entirely new peninsula emerging on the reservoir in 2021. The image also shows the toll the drought is taking on plant life. The vegetation seen in the open spaces of the Sacramento suburbs to the west and the Sierra foothills to the east are notably browner in 2021 compared to 2020. That’s bad news for wildfire season, which has already gotten an early start in California.
The dried-out vegetation is even more pronounced around Castaic Lake. The reservoir sits about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles. Southern California is where much of the early-season fire activity has centered. Cal Fire has recorded 3,151 wildfires to date along with 17,273 acres burned. It’s a relatively paltry amount compared to the 4.4 million acres that burned in 2020, a season that spawned the state’s first gigafire in modern history, turned skies blood-red in San Francisco, and destroyed 10% of all the world’s giant sequoias. But it’s bad news because the peak of fire season is still months away, in fall, when the Santa Ana and Diablo winds usually fan flames. Firefighters are already gearing up for a busy season.
The changes on Lake Mead may not look as extreme as other areas due to the zoomed-out nature of the images, but the wide view affords us some important perspective. The shrinkage is still palpable, to be sure, but so is one of the causes.
Henderson, Nevada, and the outskirts of Las Vegas are visible to the west of the lake. Rapid expansion in the Sun Belt over the past few decades has put immense pressure on already fragile water resources. Agriculture and other industrial activities in one of the driest places in North America have also taken their toll, to be sure. So, too, has climate change. The West has become increasingly dry even as more people have flocked to the region. It now faces its worst megadrought in at least 1,200 years. That drought took a huge toll on Indigenous culture in the region, forcing a wholesale change in how people live.
Whether the current megadrought — not to mention worse ones projected to come this century — cause a similar shift remains to be seen. Nevada did take a small step towards conservation by banning “non-functional” grass in places like office parks and medians, though the rule won’t take effect until 2027. But that alone is nowhere near enough to meet the scale of the water crisis in the West. Instead, meeting the moment will take new feats of engineering, new habits by citizens, and conservation at a scale never seen. Similarly, massive reductions in carbon pollution not just by the U.S. but other nations around the world will be needed if the West’s fate isn’t to be buried under hardened, parched Earth.