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Southwest Heat Wave Causes Snowpack To Melt Earlier, Quicker


Ok, the American Southwest is experiencing a record heat wave right now and scientists are warning those living in the region might have to get used to hotter days and less water. The water supply for much of the Southwest is rapidly drying up as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: One of the most alarming indicators of the now 16-year drought on the Colorado River lies about a half-hour drive out of Las Vegas. The nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is now at its lowest since the federal government built Hoover Dam in the 1930s. It's getting perilously close to reaching a level where Las Vegas, for one, would lose 90 percent of its water. That's why the local water utility is spending a billion-and-a-half dollars to punch a series of tunnels under the reservoir.

JOHN ENTSMINGER: My name is John Entsminger. I'm the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

SIEGLER: Entsminger's crews are working 24/7 on this scorching hot patch of flattened dirt near the western shore.

ENTSMINGER: And we're actually at the construction site of the low-lake-level pumping station that we're building in order to ensure our access to water from Lake Mead.

SIEGLER: They have to build a new pumping station and deeper intake valve because the authority's existing pumps that suck water over to sprawling Las Vegas are in danger of running dry. Construction is set to be completed by 2020. Now, Nevada was already the driest state in the nation, and this slow-moving disaster at Lake Mead was expected by most folks in the water business. Entsminger says the long-term forecasts aren't encouraging, either.

ENTSMINGER: This drought may be a new normal.

SIEGLER: Spending a lot of money on big infrastructure like this is one way to cope. The other main strategy being deployed right now is a little less flashy. It's conservation. Booming Las Vegas has cut its per capita water consumption by 40 percent during this drought, and they now recycle most of the water used indoors and put it back into Lake Mead. And now, for the first time ever, Arizona and California are trying to hammer out an agreement to conserve as well by voluntarily taking less water than they're legally entitled to from the reservoir.

PAT MULROY: It is in their own self-interest to prop Lake Mead up.

SIEGLER: At the Desert Research Institute, Pat Mulroy is one of the West's top water experts. She says the fact that the other two states are even talking is huge. They're usually fighting in court over old Colorado River legal compacts.

MULROY: I think they realize that it's a piece of paper that is meaningless if the hydrology in the river continues to be as bad as it's been, or worse, and Mead drops below 900.

SIEGLER: There's a term they use if it does drop below 900 feet - the dead pool. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation can't release any more water out of Hoover Dam. That would imperil San Diego, Los Angeles, not to mention farms in California's Imperial Valley that supply a lot of the country's winter produce. So there's a lot at stake, and people like Gail Kaiser watch the levels and forecasts daily. Her family owns one of the private boat harbors at the lake.

GAIL KAISER: I think they're going to figure it out. I don't think they're going to let Lake Mead go dry. No, I don't. I think they're going to figure this out because, first of all, everybody needs the water.

SIEGLER: In August, the federal government will decide whether to begin mandatory rationing. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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