America’s water reservoirs are drying up. How worried should we be?

How five of America's biggest water sources are (or aren't) surviving the warming planet.

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Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water? Where’s our water?

Some of the biggest and most important sources of water across the country are reaching record low levels. It’s causing all sorts of problems — from shortages in drinking water to an inability to generate hydroelectric power.

Lake Powell, a major U.S. water reserve, hit a record low earlier this week. With summer around the corner and warmer temperatures to follow, it’s likely to get worse.

Lake Powell is far from alone. Let’s take a look at where these shortages are hitting the hardest.

Lake Mead

The largest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Mead in Nevada provides drinking water to 20 million people.

It hasn’t reached its full capacity since 1983, and it is pushing toward dangerously low levels. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages and protects water resources, warns that it will dip below the minimum target water levels by as early as 2025.

The affects everything from water access to recreation (the National Parks Service is closing some boat launches due to low water levels) to hydroelectric power. There’s a 20% chance of reaching “dead pool” status, meaning the lake will be unable to spin hydroelectric generators.

Nevada is already restricting the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the lake this year. If things get worse, we could see water rationing in the region.

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Lake Powell

Located in Arizona, Lake Powell is one of the most frequented tourist spots in the West — and happens to be the second-largest water reservoir in the country. As many as 40 million people get water from this source.

Lake Powell might be in the roughest shape of all our reservoirs. It just fell below the minimum threshold for stable operations, which could mean restricting access and potential energy shortages.

Emergency actions were taken in 2019 to keep the reservoir above minimum levels, and new plans to keep the water source alive are underway — but things are getting desperate.

If levels continue to fall, the seven states that rely on Lake Powell for drinking and household water will have to negotiate how to divide access to the reservoir.

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Lake Oahe

Located right in the heart of South Dakota, Lake Oahe provides the vast majority of drinking water for the state. More than that, it’s a huge source of hydroelectric power, and an essential source of water for farmlands that provide much of the country’s corn and soybeans.

So far, Lake Oahe has held up surprisingly well. But it is being challenged by longer drought seasons that run drier than usual. There are warning signs that the lake could be 5 to 10 feet lower than average this year; if that were to happen, officials may have to tap water from other reserves.

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Lake Sakakawea

Currently the largest reservoir by total area and water volume in reserve, Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota is one of the biggest human-made lakes in the country. It provides some of the cleanest drinking water in the U.S. — though fracking and oil pipelines have threatened that.

The massive lake has been experiencing shortages in recent years. Last year, the governor of North Dakota, asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for help addressing low water levels. Even with support, the water levels are expected to be 10 feet lower than normal, which will render most boat access points unusable.

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Fort Peck Lake

Montana’s largest body of water, Fort Peck Lake, has a shoreline longer than the entire coastline of California. It’s home to more than 50 species of fish and generates massive amounts of hydroelectric power.

But with much less water flowing into the water source, runoffs have been cut significantly, which means much drier soil in the surrounding areas. That has negative effects on surrounding agriculture and is particularly harmful to nearby tribal lands. Runoff levels reached a 123-year low in 2021, and the situation is not expected to improve in the near future.

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Why this all matters

Nearly three-fourths of all water used in the U.S. comes from surface water sources — namely, water reservoirs like these. They are incredibly important for drinking water and hydroelectric power, which provides nearly 10% of all utility power in the country.

When water levels drop, we can experience water shortages that hurt everyone — but can be particularly devastating to Native populations and farmers.

“Drought reveals the lie of a place,” Mark Arax, author of The Dreamt Land, told NPR. “The lie is our ambition. We’ve taken on too much.”

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