The Stewards of a Broken Climate — UNLV Magazine
Confronted in our desert backyard by the inescapable effects of a deteriorating environment, these UNLV researchers, professors, and activists are fighting to mitigate the effects of climate change on scientific, legal, and sociological fronts.
When UNLV research professor and climate resilience specialist Kristen Averyt recalls the summer family vacations of her youth spent water skiing on Lake Mead, you can almost feel the spray cooling the desert breeze.
Much has changed since those not-so-distant days. When family members returned to the lake last year, the water line had receded so far that they couldn’t launch their boat.
The vast reservoir created with the completion of Hoover Dam became a symbol of the modern West; a tamed Colorado River bestowing abundant water and endless potential.
Now, devastated by the worst drought in 12 centuries, Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” marks a previously robust water line, and has come to illustrate a West imperiled by climate change.
In June 2021, Lake Mead registered its lowest water level since the reservoir’s inception in the 1930s, and in August the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a water shortage declaration for the river. The designation triggers cuts to annual water allocations in the system beginning in 2022. That translates into an approximately 7 billion gallon cut from Southern Nevada’s annual 300,000-acre feet.
By March of this year, water levels had declined more than 164 feet and were expected to drop another 30-plus feet by 2024. Power generation for Hoover Dam, which provides electricity for 20 million people, is in peril.
Severely stressed by thinning snow packs in the Rocky Mountains and decreased runoff in the Colorado River Basin, coupled with dramatic increases in use, the crisis on the Colorado is reflected in staggering declines in Mead and Lake Powell. In total, the river storage system, which provides water to more than 40 million people, is at a third of capacity.
The 20-year “megadrought,” as it’s being called, shows little sign of abating as average temperatures continue to rise, dramatic weather events are more frequent. In Nevada, already the driest state, the effects are extreme with 100 percent of the state under severe conditions and more than 43 percent under an extreme or exceptional designation, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far in 2022, the state is on course to suffer its driest 12 months in the past 128 years.