Drought-stricken US warned of looming 'dead pool'

By Regan Morris and Sophie Long
BBC News, Los Angeles

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Lake Mead
Image caption,
A view of Lake Mead - in wetter times, the water came all the way up to the rocks

A once-in-a-lifetime drought in the western part of the US is turning up dead bodies - but that's the least of people's worries.

Sitting on the Arizona-Nevada border near Las Vegas, Lake Mead - formed by the creation of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River - is the largest reservoir in the United States and provides water to 25 million people across three states and Mexico. Here, the stunning scale of a drought in the American west has been laid plain for all to see.

The water level is now so low that bodies of murder victims from decades back, once hidden by its depths, have surfaced.

One was stuffed in a barrel with a gun shot wound - presumably because someone thought it would stay unnoticed at the bottom of the vast reservoir forever.

While the dead bodies are fuelling talk about Las Vegas' mob past, water experts warn of even more worrisome consequences. If the lake keeps receding, it would reach what's known as "dead pool" - a level so low the Hoover Dam would no longer be able to produce hydropower or deliver water downstream.

Californians have been told to conserve water at home or risk mandated water restrictions as a severe drought on the West Coast is expected to get worse during the summer months.

People have been told to limit outdoor watering and take shorter showers. In Los Angeles, many are being asked to cut their water use by 35%. The restrictions come after California recorded the driest start to the year on record.

Nasa, which monitors changing water levels, is warning that the western United States is now entering one of the worst droughts ever seen.

"With climate change, it seems like the dominoes are beginning to fall," Nasa hydrologist JT Reager told the BBC.

"We get warmer temperatures, we get less precipitation and snow. The reservoirs start drying up, then in a place like the West, we get wildfires".

These consequences are beginning to have "stronger and stronger impacts," Mr Reager said.

"It's like watching this slow motion catastrophe kind of unfold".

Image caption,
The Hoover Dam

Farmers are already feeling the pain. About 75% of the water from Lake Mead goes to agriculture.

Over a third of America's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California. But tens of thousands of acres lie idle because farmers can't get enough water to grow crops.

The impact may be seen on grocery store shelves next year, Bill Diedrich, a Californian farmer, told BBC. This season's produce shows up at shops next season, he explained as he showed his bone-dry fallowed fields. Typically, he would plant tomatoes for canning on this field but he didn't have enough water.

Mr Dietrich said he hoped his children would have the opportunity to carry on farming in California in the future.

But, he said, "I don't know what the odds of that are".

For many living in California's agricultural heartland, the wells have already started to run dry and they can't afford to dig a deeper well. Charities deliver bottled water and large tanks of non-potable water for washing.

In the San Joaquin Valley, Fabian, a local resident who declined to share his surname, said he and his family of five rely on tanks of water outside his home to wash and flush their toilets. He regrets moving them to a rural area with such insecure access to water, he said.

"It's quite frightening because we don't know at this point what the situation will be within a month or two months of maybe not having water at all".

Image caption,
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, was created by the Hoover Dam, which was built in the 1930s

Many farmers argued that it's time for another massive infrastructure project like the Hoover Dam, which was built in the 1930s, so that more rainwater can be stored instead of being let to end up back in the ocean.

Dams are controversial and typically opposed by environmentalists - but with the drought now so severe, even California's Democratic leadership - largely aligned with environmental groups - have proposed rethinking some of the state's shelved dam projects.

But while some fret, others innovate. The Arizona based company Source is installing hydro-panels in homes in California and around the world which use the power of the sun to extract water from the air.

Kat George, a manager at Source, was in California's Central Valley where the company is installing hydro-panels on 1,000 homes so people can have clean drinking water. Even if their wells are still working, in many areas water is too contaminated from chemicals used in agriculture to drink safely.

The company uses solar energy to power fans inside the panels, collecting moisture from the air and then filtering it to safely drink. While it doesn't make enough water to use for washing, a small system can make enough for a family to drink - as long as the sun is shining, which it typically does in California.

They say the technology can deliver drinking water anywhere to anyone who needs it.

But not enough to wash, or water crops.

Back on Lake Mead, it's no longer possible to launch a boat in the Callville Bay Marina and the "lakeside" restaurant is now a long walk away from the shore.

But the dead bodies haven't been all bad for business. New beaches have emerged and Scuba divers are flocking to the lake to search for more bodies, said Chad Taylor, who is in charge of sales and marketing for the marina.

"I'm a lake half full kind of guy," he said. "We're still open for business".