The ‘megadrought’ gripping the western United States is said to be the worst in at least 1,200 years. As many once-great lakes face historically low levels, populations around them are suffering the consequences.

Lake Powell

The reservoir, part of the popular Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, extends from northern Arizona to southern Utah. The Colorado River feeds the lake, and because of the drought, water from the river is “chronically overused” according to the Los Angeles Times. Populations along the Colorado River have been using more than the sustainable allotment to compensate for water shortages, and the federal government is struggling to manage competing water needs.

A massive rockfall event was caught on camera by recreation boaters over Memorial Day weekend. CNN reports Tyler Knudsen, a senior geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said the lake’s “historical water-level fluctuations have contributed to elevated rockfall generation” but they cannot know with certainty what caused the slide. Lake Powell’s water level is down 28 feet from last year, and at 26% of full volume, which can add to the instability of the area.

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The Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake has lost half of its water in volume in the last 150 years, according to Science.org. Much of this decrease is due to increased human consumption of water before it reaches the lake.

KSL reports industrial activities near the lake can be blamed for the hazardous compounds found in the lake bed, and these chemicals are finding their way into the larger ecosystem. The Great Salt Lake is a wide and shallow body, with an average depth of 14 feet.

As parts of the lake dry out, researchers are concerned about the wind picking up toxic particles and blowing them towards neighboring populations in the valley. Additionally, birds and insects feed on plant matter that has absorbed these contaminants, posing health risks for wildlife and humans.

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Lake Mead

Created by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is the nation’s largest reservoir. CNN predicts the water levels will drop by another 12 feet by fall, though it has already fallen to record lows. The federal government announced a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time last year, according to The New York Times. As the water crisis continues to worsen, less water will be released from the lake that services a large part of the Southwest.

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Moving forward

Many factors contribute to the slow draining of the West’s largest reservoirs, but one of the most significant contributors is human consumption. As the water budget tightens yet again, local governments will have to figure out how to encourage their residents to use less water to prevent more environmental damage.