The Drying of the American West

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The American West is in a severe drought, and water experts are scrambling for solutions. In spite of water shortages, people continue to flock to the area.

CBN News takes a look at what is being done to sustain a growing population in the desert.

Click the player to watch the report from CBN News Mark Martin, followed by Pat Robertson's comments on the cycles of drought.

Historic Drought

With its beautiful landscapes, mild weather, and large metro areas, the American West and Southwest draw millions of people who want to call it home. But desert living can carry a high price, especially in a time of historic drought.

"It's a very scary proposition," said Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which includes Las Vegas. "I mean when we sat around the table in the 90s, there was zero probability that a drought of this magnitude would occur."

After 20 years on the job, Mulroy calls this drought her toughest challenge yet.

"Ninety percent of our water comes from Lake Mead," she said.

Courtesy of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is a pristine blue 200,000-acre reservoir. Built during the thirties, Hoover and other big dams created tremendous water supplies and lured people to the desert.

"Those facilities have done exactly what they were designed to do -- done real well," said Terry Fulp, the deputy regional director of the Lower Colorado region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "People like living in the desert Southwest, and it is because of these water supplies that have allowed folks to move out here."

Lake Mead Water Level Dropping

But take a look at Lake Mead today, and it's easy to see why water managers are deeply concerned. In 1999, Lake Mead was nearly full.  But in the last 10 years, it has dropped around 100 feet.  There is a white "bathtub ring" around the edge of the lake. It shows just how far the lake has dropped.

"There are some areas where they have to park literally a half a mile away," said Bruce Nyhuis, the assistant chief of maintenance and special projects at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  "And when it's 115 degrees out here, and they're launching their boats, and they are walking a half mile, it gets a little bit tough."

Nyhuis says it is a challenge to build new launch ramps, because the water is dropping so quickly. In fact, entire marinas with hundreds of boat slips have been moved, because the lake is now only about half full. Where CBN News interviewed Nyhuis would have been 90 to 100 feet under water, if Lake Mead was at full capacity.

"When I look at the drought, it's been 66 percent of normal runoff over the last 9 years," said Mulroy. "Let's say it improves a little bit. Let's say it gets up to 69 percent of normal runoff. In three years, we lose our upper intake. That's 40 percent of our water gone," he continued.  "Two more years and we lose both intakes. Now, 90 percent of our water is gone. We have to do something."

Population Growth

Even with 40 percent of the water gone, Mulroy says entire communities would be without water. All of this drought, while the population continues to grow. Around two million people now call Southern Nevada home -- that's 25 percent growth during this drought. And it's not just Nevada.

Six other states or around 30 million people get their water from the Colorado River basin. It not only sustains cities and towns, this water also irrigates billions of dollars worth of crops. All of this plus a growing population isn't exactly the best news when the primary water source is only about half full.

"It's a combination of reduced precipitation and an early warm-up in the spring where the snow simply sublimates or evaporates, and you don't have the run-off," Mulroy said.

Learning From The Past

To help plan for the future, water managers are looking to the past. Trees are dying off or burning in wildfires at record rates in the dry conditions, but they're also giving scientists a glimpse at past droughts.

"In planning for water supply, the managers want to know just how variable that supply might be," explained Dave Meko, a scientist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "They could see what the effect would be if such a drought were to recur today."

Tree rings provide climate information from hundreds of years ago. One sample at the lab has an inner ring dating all the way back to 322 B.C.

CBN News traveled with Meko as he did fieldwork in the Santa Catalina Mountains. He demonstrated a process known as coring, which involves extracting part of a tree's core to examine its rings. After the core is removed from the tree, it's then stored in a straw and taken back to the lab for analysis. Scientists will then analyze the rings. Wide rings mean a time of moisture. Narrow rings signify a time of drought.

"What the long-term record has shown that's of most interest to me is that there are periods of the distant past that have had droughts similar in magnitude and severity and duration to what we've experienced today," Meko said. "And, in some cases, much longer-lasting droughts."

At Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, you'll find incredible cliff dwellings like Spruce Tree House. Native Americans lived there in the 1200s, and left near the end of that century. Their departure is a mystery. Native Americans believe it was simply a time of migration, but one theory is that a period of severe drought actually forced them out.

Beams of wood are a part of the plaster and rock structures in the cliff dwellings, and the rings in that wood, once again, provide insight.

"The civilization basically shifted, and moved out around the end of the 1200s, and drought was a major factor, Meko said.

"Through tree ring research, we've documented that there was a twenty-year, plus-year drought going on starting around 1260s, 1270s," said Julie Bell, an archaeologist at Mesa Verde. "However, these people had sustained much longer, much more severe droughts earlier in their occupation, and they stayed."

Water Options

If the people left, in part, because of drought, could this be a sign of what might happen in the American West?  Water managers are exploring their options, so it doesn't come to that. One controversial solution involves transferring water from top priority agricultural districts to urban areas.

"Some people like to say 'well, instead of developing new resources, why don't you buy out ag?'" commented Mulroy. "Well, there's a national policy decision that goes along with this. Are we going to shift from a dependency on foreign oil to a dependency on foreign food? I mean, where are we going to grow the food in this country?"

Pat Mulroy's Southern Nevada Water Authority plans to build a pipeline to transfer not irrigation water, but groundwater from other parts of the state. It's also in the process of building a billion-dollar third intake even deeper in Lake Mead.

There is also a big push for residents to conserve water. Southern Nevada is even paying homeowners to tear up their grass lawns, and replace them with more water-efficient desert landscapes.

"We have spent well over a $100 million, changing out landscapings in Southern Nevada, and it's paid huge dividends," said Mulroy. "On an annual basis, (we're) delivering six billion gallons of water less a year now, than we were before."

Desalination, or removing the salt from brackish water, is another weapon in the battle against drought. The Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility opened about a year and a half ago in New Mexico, with the goal of developing new technologies to bring the cost down.

"Water is finite," said Mike Gabaldon, the director of technical resources with the Bureau of Reclamation. "There's no new sources out there. It's got to go to desal. It's got to start going there, so we're hoping that we're getting ahead of the curve there, and be ready as water managers in the West, to have that in our tool kit."

If the predictions hold true, a resourceful tool kit could mean the difference between vibrant communities and lonely lands in the desert.

*Originally aired February 17, 2009

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