The Other Recession: North American Lakes Going Dry

As 75 million Americans swelter under heat alerts on this hottest weekend of 2022, some might be cooling off in pools, sprinklers, or fire hydrants. But for 40 million people in the western part of the country, the latest heat wave threatens their already-dwindling water supply.

Lake Mead is on the verge of becoming a “dead pool”: not a snarky superhero, but a reservoir so depleted that water can no longer flow downstream from the dam. A few weeks ago, it reached its lowest level since the 1930s. Another 150 feet of loss could devastate millions of people in southwestern North America who rely on the Colorado River for water. The dam’s capacity to generate hydroelectric power will suffer even sooner than that. NASA images released earlier this week show how drastically the lake’s footprint has declined since 2000.

The view from the ground is no less startling. When I visited Hoover Dam a decade ago, I marveled at the “bathtub ring” on the canyon walls, mineral deposits marking where the water level had dropped. On the left is a snapshot I took in 2012. Compare that with a 2022 photo from Luis Cinco of the Los Angeles Times, which displays at least twice as much white rock in a stark illustration of the water’s decline.

If you think moving northward will cool off the climate crisis, guess again. Five hundred miles up the road, Utah’s Great Salt Lake just reached its lowest level in recorded history. The US Geological Survey reports that it contains barely a quarter of the water volume it did at its high point in 1987. Increased local population in recent years have diverted more and more water from the lake’s sources. Climate change exacerbates the situation, since higher temperatures vaporize the mountain snowpack before meltwater can replenish the lake.

Receding waters concentrate the lake’s salinity, killing the brine shrimp that feed millions of migratory birds each year. Some 800 square miles of lake bed, an area larger than the Hawaiian island of Maui, lie exposed. Particulates in that dust—some natural, others the result of mining efforts—go airborne and blow into the neighboring metropolis. Inhaled, they can cause a host of health problems, including respiratory ailments and an increased risk of some cancers. Economic health will suffer, too. A governmental study found that losing the lake, which supports resource extraction and leisure industries, would cost the local economy about $2 billion a year. Corporate interests love to tout jobs as an excuse to keep dirty industries in business, but what about the thousands of Utah residents who will lose their livelihoods when the lake dries up?

The author crossing the Great Salt Lake’s dry bed in 2014.

When my Laddie and I took our first trip to Utah in 2014, we paid our respects to the iconic site. Even then, we remarked that it seemed more like the Great Salt Flat, a searing expanse of desolation. Our trek towards the odiferous water is probably the closest I’ll ever come to walking on the moon. That eerie experience reinforced my motivation to write Blue Karma, published the following year. I hoped the book would be a warning. But seven years on, it’s starting to feel more like a doomsday prophecy. The lake is drying, its ecosystem dying. Drone footage featured on the Weather Channel shows a mile-long spine of formerly submerged pylons protruding from the ground like burnt skeletal remains.

Until 2020, I’d lived my whole life in the mid-Atlantic, and observed that region’s troubling climate creep. Hotter summers. Less snow during winters. Flowers blooming earlier every spring. But this is the first time I’ve captured, quite by accident, quantifiable evidence of environmental change. If my niblings stand atop Hoover Dam years from now, will they shade their eyes against an empty basin? Will they leave prints in a lunar field where the Great Salt Lake used to be, their breath loud in the silence left by extinct birds? These are not dystopian abstractions, but simple extrapolation of what I have witnessed in just a decade of climate change.

Ironic that a heat wave can be so chilling.


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