WASHINGTON — Las Vegas visitors can still snap selfies with the mermaids swimming among tropical fish in the Silverton Casino’s massive aquarium and gaze at the colorful dancing water displays of the iconic Bellagio fountains — for now.
But southern Nevada and much of the American West are struggling to cope with a worsening drought that has strained municipal water supplies, agricultural operations and wildlife populations.
Tens of millions of Americans live in areas being punished by drought, from Oregon’s Klamath River basin to California’s Central Valley. The crisis is ramping up pressure on Capitol Hill to act even as lawmakers confront sharp partisan differences over the best ways to respond.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate includes provisions aimed at mitigating drought impacts, and Democrats are looking to build on that with additional measures in their budget reconciliation package.
The seriousness of the situation is particularly evident in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell have dropped to record lows, not just affecting the amount of water available for households and agriculture but also threatening electricity generation at the Hoover Dam, which serves areas across Nevada, California and Arizona.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently declared the first-ever federal water shortage for the Colorado River, triggering cuts in the water available to Arizona farmers. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the situation, in part by reducing the amount of snowpack that helps fill the river as it melts every year.
House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement at the time that the declaration represented a “stark reminder” of how climate change is affecting the water supply for tens of millions across the West.
“We have a plan in place to manage the Colorado River drought conditions that we’re experiencing today, but we have to prepare for a future markedly drier than even the two decades of drought that has led up to today’s announcement,” he said.
Indeed, lower water levels at Lake Mead could be ahead, John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, testified before Congress earlier this year.
“Looking out just a few years, if the same hydrology levels that we’ve experienced recently continue, there’s a high probability that Lake Mead water levels will continue to decline, potentially reaching an elevation within the next decade where we will hover just above the point where Hoover Dam can no longer deliver water downstream and power production will come to a halt,” Entsminger told lawmakers.