Like overpopulation, drought is one of those crises that sneak up on you. Earthquakes, wildfires, pandemics announce their arrival like comets in the sky and are all but impossible to ignore or disparage. But when you live somewhere like Albuquerque, which averages less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, or Las Vegas, which gets just four inches on average, it takes a while to notice that it’s just not raining at all. And so we’re just now waking up to the sad fact that the Southwest is 20 years into a historic dry spell.
It’s not as though we haven’t been warned. In Lake Mead and Lake Powell we have pluviometers large enough to be visible from space. And year by year we’ve been able to see the ugly bathtub ring around these giant reservoirs inexorably widening as the water level drops. Now, the gauge is dropping from critical to catastrophic. Lake Mead is at just 28 percent of capacity and Lake Powell at 27 percent, the lowest levels since the dams were completed that created those lakes.
That’s grim news not just for the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for their drinking water but for all 330 million of us. Three-quarters of the river’s water irrigates crops, including California’s Central Valley, the source of a quarter of the nation’s vegetables.