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Report says Western waterways face future peril

A new study jointly released last Thursday by NASA and the University of California at Irvine paints a dismal picture for the future of Western waterways.

"We don't know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don't know when we're going to run out," UC-Irvine water resources specialist Stephanie Castle, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking."

Using a satellite designed to track changes in groundwater, the research team found that the Colorado River basin — which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states — lost 15.6 cubic miles of freshwater in the last 10 years, according to an article in Slate Magazine.

More than 75 percent of that loss came because of excessive groundwater pumping. It’s the first study to quantify just how big a role the overuse of groundwater plays in dwindling water resources out West.

An accompanying map shows the striking impact of long-term drought in the fastest growing part of the United States. From Texas to California, the new research backs increasingly pressing efforts to limit groundwater pumping and renegotiate water rights in an era of global warming.

Earlier this month, Lake Mead set a new all-time record low.

To memorialize the event, photographer Ethan Miller set out to take a series of “after” photos to compare to pictures he shot in July 2007.

In one set of contrasting images, the Lake Mead Marina has been moved due to low water levels, and is no longer in the 2014 photo.

In another set, a pair of restrooms on pontoon boats now sit on dirt.

Thanks to an ongoing drought, Lake Mead’s water level will continue to fall for the indefinite future. Thursday’s joint NASA/UC-Irvine study implicates continued groundwater pumping in the rapid decline.

In a two-year forecast released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Lake Mead, the lake is expected to drop another 20 feet into record territory by summer 2016. Well before then, perhaps as soon as next April, downstream water rationing will kick in, according to a January article in The New York Times.

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