Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


Leave a comment

How Low Can You Go?

The water level in Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, reached its lowest point on record back in May and the situation has not improved since then.

Water levels in the lake fell to 1,074 in May, down from an average of 1,084 feet in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, leaving the lake at 37% of capacity The region has suffered from a drought that has lasted more than a decade with the snow packs that feed the lake continuing to be lower than average over the past few years. Recent images of the lake show just how far water levels have dropped with “bathtub ring” markings indicating the higher height of the reservoir.

At 1073ft above sea level, the July reading at the Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead, was the lowest elevation since the reservoir was filled in the late 1930s.  The currently level also falls below the initial threshold of 1075ft that triggers emergency rationing measures across several states.

The manmade lake provides crucial water to parts of Arizona, Nevada and California, including the Los Angeles region. The federal government could implement emergency measures if the water level remains at 1,075 feet or below at the end of the year. Those measures would require reductions in water delivery to Nevada and Arizona.  California and Mexico would be exempt.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects the lake’s levels to drop to 1,071 feet over the summer during peak demand before rising to 1,078 at the end of the year.

However, the crucial measurement is not the current level but the mid-August assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation for 1 January 2017. And if it is below that threshold an official water shortage at Lake Mead will be declared.  The El Nino present over the past year delivered significant rain and snow fall to the West but not enough to truly impact the severe drought conditions.  If a La Nina follows, the region could see itself once again covered by extreme drought conditions that negatively impact all reservoirs and make sever water rationing the rule rather than the exception.

Lake Mead Water Level – July 2016Lalke Mead July 2016


Leave a comment

Global Drought Update – April 2015

While we post much on the domestic U.S. drought conditions, there are dozens of locations globally that are experiencing significant or severe instances of water crisis.  This is an update for April 2015, care of UNICEF.

Country-by-country overview

Ethiopia: An estimated 8 million of Ethiopia’s 60 million people are at immediate risk due to drought. UNICEF estimates that 1.4 million of those at risk are children under five.

Eritrea: Successive years of drought, combined with the border war with Ethiopia, has created major food shortages. Nearly 1.3 million people are at risk, including an estimated 1 million who have been displaced by the war.

Somalia: Due to seven consecutive poor harvests coupled with chronic insecurity in some regions, food stability is deteriorating, affecting as many as one million people, including 300,000 children aged under 5 years. The drought has been made worse by sudden torrential rains and flash flooding. Sudan: An estimated 2.8 million people in the south face food insecurity in the coming months.

Uganda: About 550,000 people face food insecurity.

Afghanistan: Large parts of the south are severely affected, where 60 to 80 percent of livestock have died. Almost 2.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population, are at risk and many of them will need assistance for at least the next 12 months.

China: In the northern Shanxi province, nearly 3 million people don’t have enough water. About one-third of the province’s wheat crop has been hit by the drought and more than 60 percent of its soil lacks water.

India: The government has mobilized massive relief efforts in several regions. Madhya Pradesh, along with the western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in the south, are in the grip of a severe drought following the failure of last year’s monsoon rains. Nearly 130 million people living in 12 States have been seriously affected by what some officials call the worst drought in 100 years.

Iran: The government has informed the United Nations office in Tehran that it is ready to accept international aid to help meet losses estimated at $1.7 billion from the drought. Iran needs about $200 million to provide water tankers and water purifying units for drought-hit areas.

Morocco: The government has launched a $633 million contingency plan to combat the worst drought for a decade. About 70 percent of the country’s arable land has been affected.

Pakistan: Government officials estimate that nearly 3 million people – mostly villagers – face possible starvation. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Pakistan’s southern Thar desert. The drought has devastated crops and livestock in the desert, home to 1 million people, sparking fears of a massive humanitarian crisis.


Leave a comment

Lake Mead Has Resumed Shrinking

We have highlighted in the past the frightening reality of Las Vegas’ dependence on water from Lake Mead, not to mention the reliance of much of Arizona and the city of Los Angeles.  As the lake lost volume during the Summer of 2014, alarm bells started going off regarding the epic decline in the elevation of the lake.

While the lake gained approximately 7 feet of elevation from mid-November to  mid-January, that has all been given back as of this week.  For context, the lake went from 1082 feet in elevation to 1089 feet.  A “full pool”, meaning the optimal elevation, is 1220 feet.  The all-time highest elevation was 1226 feet and the all-time lowest was 1080 feet.

So, as we near the beginning of Summer 2015, Lake Mead is only two feet above the all-time low reading.

Bathing may become just one more extravagance for those visiting Vegas.

Lake Mead Water Levels


Leave a comment

Experts’ Dismal Views on California Snowpack

CAlifornia Snowpack

Two Stanford experts have been widely quoted on issues related to the ongoing California drought this Spring: Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford’s Water in the West program and a Woods professor of the practice specializing in water law.

Stanford News Service recently interviewed Diffenbaugh and Szeptycki about why California’s snowpack is in decline, and what it means for water management in the state.  Some of their thoughts on the situation does not make happy reading.

Noah Diffenbaugh

This is the kind of extreme event that falls outside our historical experience. This is not only a low April 1 snowpack, but it is muchlower than the previous record low. California’s water infrastructure and management system relies on natural water storage from snowpack, which accumulates during the cool season and melts gradually into reservoirs and streams during the warm season. April 1 is typically the fulcrum between the snow accumulation season and the snowmelt season. Because we have such little snow right now, what is in the reservoirs is essentially what we will have between now and the next rainy season, which typically doesn’t start until the autumn. Even in a normal summer without pre-existing drought conditions, it would be stressful to have essentially no snow supply. But we are already in severe drought conditions with record high temperatures so far this year, meaning this drought is very likely to worsen during the summer.

Leon Szeptycki

In terms of impact on people and the environment, California’s federally operated reservoir system will likely not provide any water to agricultural users for the second year in a row – an unprecedented situation. Urban water providers are expected to get 25 percent of their allocated water. Similarly, the state-operated reservoir system is currently expecting to provide 20 percent of water deliveries to the majority of its users. Snowmelt runoff plays an important role for fish and other aquatic species because it is the primary source of summertime flow for many of our rivers and streams. The lack of snowpack will mean acutely low flows for these streams, and many of them will run dry. The impacts on aquatic life and ecosystems is potentially staggering.


Leave a comment

Nestlé Sells You Back Your Water at a Profit

In a fight that we are bound to see repeated in myriad ways the world over, a movement in Sacramento, California is tilting at the global corporate windmill by challenging Nestle’s right to take public water and resell it as bottled water at prices higher than gasoline. From Mint Press News:

The city of Sacramento is in the fourth year of a record drought – yet the Nestlé Corporation continues to bottle city water to sell back to the public at a big profit, local activists charge.

The Nestlé Water Bottling Plant in Sacramento is the target of a major press conference on Tuesday, March 17, by a water coalition that claims the company is draining up to 80 million gallons of water a year from Sacramento aquifers during the drought.

The coalition, the crunchnestle alliance, says that City Hall has made this use of the water supply possible through a “corporate welfare giveaway,” according to a press advisory.

“The coalition is protesting Nestlé’s virtually unlimited use of water – up to 80 million gallons a year drawn from local aquifers – while Sacramentans (like other Californians) who use a mere 7 to 10 percent of total water used in the State of California, have had severe restrictions and limitations forced upon them,” according to the coalition.

“Nestlé pays only 65 cents for each 470 gallons it pumps out of the ground – the same rate as an average residential water user. But the company can turn the area’s water around, and sell it back to Sacramento at mammoth profits,” the coalition said.

Activists say that Sacramento officials have refused attempts to obtain details of Nestlé’s water used. Coalition members have addressed the Sacramento City Council and requested that Nestle’ either pay a commercial rate under a two tier level, or pay a tax on their profit.

In October, the coalition released a “White Paper” highlighting predatory water profiteering actions taken by Nestle’ Water Bottling Company in various cities, counties, states and countries.  Most of those great “deals” yielded mega profits for Nestle’ at the expense of citizens and taxpayers.  Additionally, the environmental impact on many of those areas yielded disastrous results.


Leave a comment

One Year (and Counting)

From the Los Angeles Times this past Thursday, Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, sounds the alarm that, while much of the country has experienced a wet winter, California just burrowed deeper into it’s existing water crisis.

Op-Ed: California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California’s winter was as well.

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.

Our state’s water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future. It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.

Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.

This process works just fine when water is in abundance. In times of crisis, however, we must demand that planning for California’s water security be an honest, transparent and forward-looking process. Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.


Leave a comment

“Last Call at the Oasis”

The global-catastrophe documentary is a thriving form these days, as the apparent unsustainability of human life has emerged as fertile ground for cinematic journalism. Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis, is one of the more recent additions to the canon and the content, combining interviews with experts and video evidence of what is happening to water resources across the globe, brings home the catastrophic potential of global inaction.  Though released in 2012, the film remains relevant in a time of increasing drought, water wars and water pollution.

From the New York Times review of the film:

The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts make “Last Call at the Oasis” especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.

The question is whether anyone is listening, and it is a question that always nips at the heels of documentaries like this one. One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. 

There is also a measure of hope to be gleaned from Ms. Yu’s interview subjects, though less from what they have to say — which is pretty grim — than from their seriousness and dedication.

However frustrated they may be by political paralysis, corporate trickery or plain human stupidity, none of them seem inclined to give up. When they do, we really will be screwed, and we won’t have or need movies like this to tell us so.

Here is the original trailer for the film.