Residents in western US worried about mega drought

This photo taken on November 13, 2022 shows a dried up lake bed near Hite, a remote town at the north end of Lake Powell on the Colorado River in Utah, United States.  Photo: Xinhua

This photo taken on November 13, 2022 shows a dried up lake bed near Hite, a remote town at the north end of Lake Powell on the Colorado River in Utah, United States. Photo: Xinhua

Moderate-to-severe droughts stretched from the US West Coast to the Rocky Mountains with large areas of extreme and exceptional drought, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information’s latest monthly drought report, while many Westerners grew far more nervous than those cold words.

“Our sagebrush there is all dried, all the grass and everything we have,” Michael Badback, a 54-year-old man from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, told Xinhua on Sunday. “You are mugwort. The roots keep reaching down to get water, but they’re not the same color as they used to be.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one of three nationally recognized Nuche or Ute tribes. Their tribal lands encompass 1,000 square miles of southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and small, isolated portions of Utah, where Badback’s community is located.

According to statistics from the US Drought Monitor, at the end of October 73.5 percent of the US West was affected by moderate to extreme drought, and the so-called Four Corners States, a region consisting of the southwest corner of Colorado, the southeast corner of Utah, The northeast corner of Arizona and northwest corner of New Mexico suffered the worst from the disaster.

“Everything is dry and it’s just hard to live,” said Badback, who grew up in White Mesa, a rural southeastern Utah community of about 300 Native Americans. “I know we have this climate change, but they’re sagebrush, the last weed in a thousand years, and they’ve survived a prolonged drought.”

Badback said that due to the drought, which lasted about 20 years in the west, many young tribesmen have left the community established in the 1950s, and the population there has been declining every year for the past two decades.

A study released in February this year by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) showed that the western United States had spent the past two decades in the most extreme mega-drought in at least 1,200 years. Meanwhile, researchers determined that human-caused climate change was a key driver of the destructive conditions, and offered a grim prognosis: Even drier decades lie ahead.

“We now know from these studies that this is dry not just from the context of recent memory, but from the context of the last millennium,” said Park Williams, a UCLA climate scientist and lead author of the study.

Spencer Dill, a farmer living in western Colorado, was also familiar with the word “megadrought”. He told Xinhua his hometown near the Rocky Mountains still has enough rain and snow and he’s heard many people have recently moved from the south, including the Colorado River Basins and Grand Basin regions. More and more farmland and ranches became desert due to water scarcity.

According to American Rivers, an influential river protection organization based in Washington, D.C., mandatory cuts prompted by water shortages caused states in the West to lose large numbers of water supplies. In Pinal County, Arizona alone, more than 500,000 acre-feet (616.7 million cubic meters) of water have been reduced.

On the west bank of the Colorado River, a vital lifeline for the Southwest and the nation, near Utah’s Hite Crossing Bridge, where the West’s largest river meets Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir, Dill murmured “it’s really worried.”

He said the upstream portion of the river runs through his small town, and news that the river is at an all-time low has surfaced constantly. He drove a truck down the river for more than 60 hours to see what was happening downstream.

In the young man’s eyes, Lake Powell Reservoir is so low that the Hite area is just a river with no reservoir in sight. Dozens of empty campsites stood at the dry lake area, a gas station for the local recreation area was closed.

Including Hite, several launch pads at Lake Powell have shut down due to low water levels. The latest data released Thursday showed Lake Powell was 170.96 feet (52.1 meters) below the full pool. In terms of content, the lake accounts for 23.77 percent of the full pool.

“It’s really concerning,” Dill repeated to Xinhua, noting that he knows the Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people, irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land, and supports $1.4 trillion in economic activities . The river serves the country’s major cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tijuana.

All of this is at risk due to rising temperatures and droughts caused by climate change, combined with antiquated river management and over-allocation of limited water supplies.

“We’re watching the water drop in our bank account,” Williams warned. “And we know that eventually we’ll have to rein in our spending before the account runs out.”