California tightens water regulations amid long drought

Pastor Frankie Olmedo, 56, who volunteers four hours a day to hand out water, fills up a container in Porterville, California October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Pastor Frankie Olmedo, 56, who volunteers four hours a day to hand out water, fills up a container in Porterville, California October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Water regulators in California voted on Tuesday to outlaw watering the lawn within 48 hours of a rainstorm, the latest effort to spur Californians to conserve as the state enters its fourth year of drought.

Facing a dramatic slowdown in voluntary conservation efforts by property owners, the state Water Resources Control Board also tightened conservation rules in other ways, prohibiting water from being served in restaurants unless customers request it, and forbidding lawn-watering more than twice a week.

“I am sorry we have to do this,” Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said before the vote. “But we are not seeing the level of stepping up and ringing the alarm bells that the situation really warrants.”

California is the only U.S. state to regulate water use in this manner, Marcus said.

The drought lingers on despite storms that brought some respite in December and February. The storms helped fill some of the state’s reservoirs higher than they were at this time last year, but most still have less water than historical averages show is typical.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which melts in the spring and provides up to a third of the state’s water, stood at 12 percent of normal on March 17.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh)

California Is Turning Back Into A Desert And There Are No Contingency Plans

Drought-Public-Domain-300x204Once upon a time, much of the state of California was a barren desert.  And now, thanks to the worst drought in modern American history, much of the state is turning back into one.  Scientists tell us that the 20th century was the wettest century that the state of California had seen in 1000 years.  But now weather patterns are reverting back to historical norms, and California is rapidly running out of water.  It is being reported that the state only has approximately a one year supply of water left in the reservoirs, and when the water is all gone there are no contingency plans.  Back in early 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the entire state, but since that time water usage has only dropped by 9 percent.  That is not nearly enough.  The state of California has been losing more than 12 million acre-feet of total water a year since 2011, and we are quickly heading toward an extremely painful water crisis unlike anything that any of us have ever seen before.

But don’t take my word for it.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Jay Famiglietti “is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine”.  What he has to say about the horrific drought in California is extremely sobering…

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

Data from NASA satellites show that the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins — that is, all of the snow, river and reservoir water, water in soils and groundwater combined — was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014. That loss is nearly 1.5 times the capacity of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir.

Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

Are you starting to understand why so many experts are so alarmed?

For much more from Famiglietti, check out this 60 Minutes interview.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, essentially the entire state is suffering drought conditions right now.  And as you can see from the map below, most of the state is currently experiencing either the highest or the second-highest classification of drought…

US Drought Monitor California 2015

Nearly 40 million people live in the state of California at the moment.

What are they all going to do when the water is gone?

In some rural areas, reservoirs are already nearly bone dry.  And in other areas, the water quality has gone way down.  For example, in one Southern California neighborhood black water is now coming out of the taps…

Residents of a Southern California neighborhood are concerned about the fact that the water flowing out of the taps in their homes is the color black. That’s right; the water coming out of their faucets is indeed black — not gray, not cloudy — but black. Inky, opaque black water that the water company says is okay to drink.

Those who live in Gardena, California, are understandably skeptical when asked to consume water that strongly resembles crude oil or something emitted by a squid. The water reportedly also has an “odor of rotten eggs or sewer smell,” according to one resident.

Perhaps you don’t care about what happens to California.

Perhaps you believe that they are just getting what they deserve.

And you might be right about that.

But the truth is that this is a crisis for all of us, because an enormous amount of our fresh produce is grown in the state.

As I discussed in a previous article, the rest of the nation is very heavily dependent on the fruits and vegetables grown in California.  The following numbers represent California’s contribution to our overall production…

99 percent of the artichokes

44 percent of asparagus

two-thirds of carrots

half of bell peppers

89 percent of cauliflower

94 percent of broccoli

95 percent of celery

90 percent of the leaf lettuce

83 percent of Romaine lettuce

83 percent of fresh spinach

a third of the fresh tomatoes

86 percent of lemons

90 percent of avocados

84 percent of peaches

88 percent of fresh strawberries

97 percent of fresh plums

Without the agricultural production of the state of California, we are in a massive amount of trouble.

And of course there are other areas all over the globe that are going through similar things.  For instance, taps in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo are running dry as Brazil experiences the worst drought that it has seen in 80 years.

The world simply does not have enough fresh water left at this point, and that is why water is being called “the new oil”.  The following comes from CBS News…

It’s been said that the wars of the 21st century may well be fought over water. The Earth’s population has more than doubled over the last 50 years and the demand for fresh water — to drink and to grow food — has surged along with it. But sources of water like rainfall, rivers, streams, reservoirs, certainly haven’t doubled. So where is all that extra water coming from? More and more, it’s being pumped out of the ground.

Water experts say groundwater is like a savings account — something you draw on in times of need. But savings accounts need to be replenished, and there is new evidence that so much water is being taken out, much of the world is in danger of a groundwater overdraft.

And if scientists are right, what we are experiencing right now may just be the very beginning of our problems.  In fact, one team of researchers has concluded that the Southwestern United States is headed for a “megadrought” that could last for decades…

Scientists had already found that the Southwestern United States were at great risk of experiencing a significant megadrought (in this case meaning drought conditions that last for over 35 years) before the end of the 21st century. But a new study published in Science Advancesadded some grim context to those predictions.

Columbia University climate scientists Jason Smerdon and Benjamin Cook, and Cornell University’s Toby Ault were co-authors on the study. They took data from tree rings and other environmental records of climate from the Southwest and compared them to the projections of 17 different climate models that look at precipitation and soil moisture. When they made the comparison between past and future, they found that all the models agreed: the next big megadrought is coming, and it will be way worse than anything we’ve seen in over 1,000 years–including droughts that have been credited with wiping out civilizations.

Needless to say, along with any water crisis comes a food crisis.

Virtually everything that we eat requires a tremendous amount of water to grow.  And at this point, the world is already eating more food than it produces most years.

So what is going to happen to us as this water crisis gets even worse?

California Has Just One Year of Water Reserves, So… Water Cannons

watercannonsJay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a terrifying piece in the Los Angeles Times about the future of California’s water. According to Famiglietti, the state has just one year of water in reserves:

Data from NASA satellites show that the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins — that is, all of the snow, river and reservoir water, water in soils and groundwater combined — was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014. That loss is nearly 1.5 times the capacity of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir.

Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

And it gets worse. Apparently we have no real plan for dealing with the continuation of our current drought. So what’s Famiglietti’s solution to this problem? Immediate mandatory water rationing, the acceleration of legislation that focuses on sustainability, and the creation of a new state task force to come up with long term solutions. Pffffft. Good luck.

That all sounds hard. Like really hard. Even in a state that didn’t have completely dysfunctional government, that would be hard. So may I suggest an idea from history?2

In the early 1950s a construction engineer by the name of Sidney Cornell proposed shooting man-made geysers from Northern California to Southern California. The illustration above ran in the October 1951 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine, showing how this whole thing was supposed to work. The system would leapfrog water down the state, with plants spaced one mile apart. Of course, with Northern California also struggling, we’ll have to pull that water from somewhere else. Alaska, maybe?

Yes, it’s a really idiotic idea. But it seems about as likely as getting anything done politically at any level in California’s government right now. Forget the Hyperloop. Bring on the water cannons!

Image by Frank Tinsley via Modern Mechanix blog

 

Washington state governor declares drought emergency

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Washington state Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency across three regions including key agricultural hubs of the U.S. Northwest State on Friday, citing near record low snowpack levels ahead of the spring runoff.

Watersheds on the Olympic Peninsula, east side of the central Cascade Mountains including Yakima and Wenatchee, and Walla Walla region, which are vital to apple and wine production, will be hit hardest with drought conditions, the governor’s office said.

Snowpack is a mere 7 percent of normal in the Olympic Mountains. It ranges from 8 to 45 percent of normal across the Cascades, and is 67 percent of normal in the Walla Walla region.

“We can’t wait any longer; we have to prepare now for drought conditions that are in store for much of the state,” said Inslee. “Snowpack is at record lows, and we have farms, vital agricultural regions, communities and fish that are going to need our support.”

An unusually warm winter has caused much of the precipitation to fall as rain, leaving mountain snowpack a fraction of normal. And a healthy snowpack is what would slowly feed rivers across the state and sustains farms and fish through the drier summer months.

Short and long-range weather forecasts are not expected to bring relief, calling for warmer and drier weather.

With snowpack statewide averaging 27 percent of normal, 34 of the state’s 62 watersheds are expected to receive less than 75 percent of their normal water supplies.

The Washington Department of Ecology has requested $9 million in drought relief from the legislature. The money would pay for agricultural and fisheries projects, emergency water-right permits, changes to existing water rights, and grant water-right transfers.

For now, water suppliers in the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett areas are in decent shape and are not projecting much hardship, according to the governor’s office.

The drought emergency comes as California battles its worst drought in decades.

(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Richard Chang)

Southwest and Great Plains at risk of 21st century ‘mega-drought’

Global warming will bring the “unprecedented” risk of a decades-long mega-drought in the American Southwest and Great Plains during the second half of the century, researchers claim.

The forecast, which was published online Thursday in the new journal Science Advances, contrasts sharply with other recent assessments that report greater uncertainty about future droughts, according to study authors.

Mega-drought in our future?
Scientists say the American Southwest could be in for a mega-drought by the end of the century.
The researchers used historic tree ring data and three drought measures to conclude that there was at least an 80% chance of a 35-year-long drought occurring by the end of this century.

“Imagine a naturally occurring drought, such as the one occurring in California … imagine that going on for decades … that’s kind of a mega-drought,” said lead study author Benjamin Cook, a climatologist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Cook and his coauthors — Toby Ault, a geoscientist at Cornell University, and Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University — discussed their research at a San Jose teleconference Thursday.

Although many scientists agree that California’s current drought is the result of natural climate variability, and not the result of global warming, Cook and his colleagues said human-produced greenhouse gasses were increasing the likelihood of future droughts.

Higher temperatures, low precipitation and increased rates of evaporation would result in drier soils, they said.

The researchers said their model was based on predicted emissions, and that reductions in those emissions could mitigate future drying.

‘Hi, do you have water?’ In a Central Calif. town, answer is often no.
‘Hi, do you have water?’ In a Central Calif. town, answer is often no.
“We’re not necessarily locked into these levels of mega-drought risk if we slow the effects of rising greenhouse gas on global temperatures,” Ault said.

Very lengthy and extreme periods of drought have affected Southern California and much of the Western United States in the past, although long before the founding of the nation.

According to scientists, paleoclimatic evidence suggests that intense periods of dryness occurred in this region from the 9th to the 14th centuries, a period now called the Medieval Climate Anomaly.

Cook and his colleagues said future drought risk probably will exceed that of the Medieval Anomaly.

“Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that may present a substantial challenge to adaptation,” the authors wrote.

“Human populations in this region, and their associated water resource demands, have been increasing rapidly in recent decades, and these trends are expected to continue for years to come.”

Sign of the Apocalypse? Plague Is Back, With a Disturbing Twist

virus_crop380wIf you thought the film Contagion was frightening, this medical plot twist may scare you even more—because it’s real.

Back in November, the island nation of Madagascar confirmed 119 cases of plague, including 40 deaths. But the bad news recently took a disturbing turn: “The fleas that transmit this ancient disease from rats to humans have developed resistance to the first-line insecticide,” Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in a new report.

You probably recognize the infectious disease as the one known as the “Black Death,” which during the 14th century became a devastating epidemic that claimed an estimated 50 million lives throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the disease spreads from rodents to humans via infected fleas. Those infected generally develop bubonic plague—exhibiting swollen lymph nodes and flu-like symptoms—or, if it spreads to the lungs, the deadlier advanced form, pneumonic plague. Caught early, antibiotics can effectively treat the disease; left untreated, however, plague kills 30 to 60 percent of those infected.

Steamboats from India carried plague to Madagascar in 1898. What makes the recent outbreak there particularly troubling is that scientists have been warning about insecticide resistance in fleas for years. Plague surveillance in Madagascar was discontinued in 2006 due to a lack of funding, but almost 17 years ago—and just six years after the first-line insecticide was initially used in Madagascar—an article published in the Journal for Emerging Infectious Diseases closed with the admonition, “the increasing resistance of fleas to insecticides have caused much concern.”

A November 2014 study conducted by the health research center Institut Pasteur in Madagascar found conclusive evidence that more than 80 percent of the fleas tested were resistant to Deltamethrin, the insecticide referenced in the WHO report. Out of the 32 flea populations examined, only two demonstrated susceptibility to the insecticide. The report’s authors conclude, “In the…re-emergence of plague…in Madagascar, Deltamethrin is ineffective against fleas. Its use in Madagascar should be stopped and the control program for plague diseases needs to change to another insecticide.”

While the study explains that many factors could contribute to the fleas’ increased resistance to insecticides—including environment, climate, geography, urbanization, and human social and cultural behaviors—the core mechanism at work is natural selection. Each time a population of fleas is treated with insecticide, fleas that by some quirk have a built-in resistance survive and breed to create the next generation of fleas, born genetically resistant to the insecticide that wiped out their parents’ peers. Over time, the insecticide becomes less effective as the flea populations are increasingly comprised of only those with the quirk of DNA that protects against it. To compensate for its lowered levels of efficacy, a higher concentration of the insecticide is often used—which breeds a generation of fleas even more resistant than the last.

For the people of Madagascar, Deltamethrin restistance is a case of déjà vu all over again. Use of the insecticide, a man-made version of a natural insecticide that chrysanthemum flowers produce, began in the 1990s after insects developed resistance to the flea-control chemical being used at the time. Some scientists have hypothesized that fleas’ resistance to Deltamethrin may be a result of the species’ exposure to the old insecticide.

What can be done? For now, Institut Pasteur researchers are testing 12 insecticides to see which will be most effective at controlling flea populations. Without plague surveillance, however, there is no way to tell how long it will take for the fleas to build resistance to the next line of insecticides. Funding shortfalls also continue to stand in the way of those trying to track and control plague in Madagascar—not to mention the growing number of other health concerns the institute must deal with: When Sébastien Boyer, head of the medical entomology unit at the institute, was contacted for comment on the status of the insecticides currently being tested, he responded by e-mail, “No time…we are currently in malaria outbreak in Farafangana…sorry.”

Scientists warn of ‘mega-drought’ risk in western US

megadroughtLong-lasting mega-droughts could occur with increasing frequency in the western United States later this century if no action is taken to rein in climate change by curbing fossil fuel use, researchers said.

Mega-drought is defined as any drought as bad as the worst already seen in the 20th century, but lasting much longer, for 35 years or more.

The study is the first to predict that the coming intense dry spells could exceed the decades-long mega-droughts that occurred centuries ago and are blamed for the demise of certain civilizations in the late 13th century.

“I was honestly surprised at just how dry the future is likely to be,” said co-author Toby Ault, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University.

“I look at these future mega-droughts like a slow moving natural disaster. We have to put mega-droughts into the same category as other natural disasters that can be dealt with through risk management.”

The risks and dangers are worse today because of the larger population and greater dependence on water resources, scientists warned.

“We are the first to do this kind of quantitative comparison between the projections and the distant past, and the story is a bit bleak,” said Jason Smerdon, a co-author and climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“Even when selecting for the worst mega-drought-dominated period, the 21st century projections make the mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden.”

– ‘Unfavorable’ forecast –

Researchers applied 17 different climate models to analyze the future impact of rising temperatures on regions from Mexico to the United States and Canada.

They also projected a continued rise in emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and looked at a scenario in which actions were taken to cut back on greenhouse gases resulting in lower emissions. Both approaches raised concern for the future.

“The results… are extremely unfavorable for the continuation of agricultural and water resource management as they are currently practiced in the Great Plains and southwestern United States,” said David Stahle, professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas who was not involved in the study.

Currently the western United States has been experiencing a drought for about 11 of the past 14 years.

The dry area spans California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma and other parts of the region, directly affects more than 64 million people.

“Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,” said Benjamin Cook of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years.”

The research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, and published in a new AAAS online journal called Science Advances

Tests planned on mysterious ‘milky rain’ in U.S. Pacific Northwest

Northwest Milky Rain

Northwest Milky Rain

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Scientists from two U.S. Pacific Northwest laboratories plan to conduct tests of unusual precipitation that fell across the region over the weekend in hopes of pinpointing the origins of so-called “milky rain” that has mystified residents, officials said on Wednesday.

Officials at both the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Benton Clean Air Agency, both in Washington state, said they had collected samples of the rain, which left a powdery residue on cars across a wide swath of the two states.

Scientists at the Richland lab said they believe the rain may have carried volcanic ash from an erupting volcano in Japan, while the clean air agency said its staffers believe dust from central Oregon was the culprit.

The National Weather Service has said it believes the powdery rain was most likely a byproduct of dust storms hundreds of miles away in Nevada, although it could not rule out volcanic ash from Japan as a possible culprit.

But the National Weather Service has also said it was not equipped to perform a chemical analysis of the rain that would be required to pinpoint its origins.

Wherever the milky precipitation came from, officials say they do not believe it poses any health risk. Air monitoring stations did not detect anything unusual while the rain was falling, said Robin Bresley Priddy, executive director of Benton Clean Air.

“We don’t have any reason to think there’s anything wrong, but there’s no reason not to be cautious if you’re concerned,” she added. “You may want to wash it off your car with water, rather than with your hands, and avoid touching it and breathing it in.”

Record-Setting Drought Intensifies in Parched California

The relentless heat that has plagued the western half of the country this summer has ratcheted up California’s terrible drought once again, bringing it to record levels. More than half of the state is in “exceptional” drought, the highest category recognized by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which released its latest update on Thursday.

“The heat has been and continues to be a factor in drought expansion,” Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and this week’s Drought Monitor author, told Climate Central.

New information coming in about reservoir levels, stream flows and Record-Setting Drought Intensifies in Parched California prompted Rippey to increase the amount of California covered by exceptional drought to 58 percent from 34 percent (all of the state is in some level of drought). That is a record amount of the state covered by this level of drought since the Monitor began in 1990.

While the drought can’t be directly linked to climate change, the warming of the planet is expected to make already dry places drier. And future droughts could be even worse.

The current drought — which rivals the terrible drought of the late 1970s — has been 3 years in the making, as three successive winter wet seasons went by with below-normal rainfall. The paltry snowpack this year really intensified matters, and the persistent pattern of heat in the West and cold in the East has kept much of California baking all year. In fact, the state had its warmest first six months of a year on record this year. July has followed suit with, for example, San Francisco registering an uncharacteristic 90°F on July 25, a full 12°F above normal.

“Excessive heat this time of year leads to heavy irrigation demands, deteriorating rangeland and pasture conditions, and higher evaporation rates,” Rippey wrote in an email.

These effects of the heat further reduce reservoir levels and stream flows and can send more towns and farmers in search of groundwater to pump. Reports of such changes can slowly trickle in as the impacts intensify and give the Drought Monitor authors reason to upgrade the level of drought in an area, or in this case, over a large swath of Northern California.

Reservoir storage in the state currently sits at about 60 percent of its normal level, above the record low of 41 percent set in 1977, but short about a year’s worth of reservoir storage. That shortfall is the result of the abysmal rains over the past 3 years: From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2014, statewide precipitation averaged 45.05 inches, which was a record low.

“Effectively, only about 2 years of precipitation fell in that 3-year period from July 2011 to June 2014,” Rippey said.

(MORE: NASA Photos Show How Bad California’s Drought Has Gotten)

With such dismal numbers, water conservation is key.

“Conservation is certainly critical from this point forward, especially if drought-easing precipitation does not materialize during the 2014-15 cold season,” he said.

The state recently enacted mandatory water restrictions after a call for voluntary conservation failed to move the needle. For example, new regulations call for local agencies to fine anyone found wasting water up to $500 per day.

The depth of the drought and the heat have both helped fuel wildfires in the state, including a fire raging in Yosemite National Park that is 58 percent contained.

Officials have been hoping that a developing El Niño, currently foundering, would bring some relief in the form of winter rains this coming winter. But only strong El Niños are well correlated with rainier-than-normal conditions over Southern California, and this El Niño is looking less and less like it will be a strong one. However, even a weak or moderate El Niño could mean the wet season hits somewhat close to normal rainfall numbers.

The Drought Apocalypse Approaches As The Colorado River Basin Dries Up

Scientists on Thursday released a first-of-its-kind study that finds the seven states of the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin are depleting groundwater reserves at a rapid rate. That threatens the future of a river that supplies water to 40 million people and irrigates 4 million acres of farmland.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA analyzed data from a satellite that measures underground water reserves to calculate that the Colorado River Basin has lost 65 cubic kilometers—that’s 17.3 trillion gallons—of water between December 2004 and November 2013. That represents twice the capacity of the United States’ largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada. Most worrying, 75 percent of the loss came from groundwater supplies.

“We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” Stephanie Castle, the report’s lead author and a water resources specialist at UC Irvine, 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.”

Terrifying, actually. Groundwater reserves have accumulated over thousands of years and recharge at an exceedingly slow rate as rainwater and snowmelt seep into the ground. Rain is rare as the current drought enters its 15th year.

The data indicates that farmers and cities are pumping far more groundwater than can be replenished. At some point, the well will run dry.

“We observe a negative net change in groundwater storage over the 108-month time period [of the study], indicating that groundwater withdrawals (pumping) are not balanced by recharge and must be greater than the observed depletion rate,” Castle said in an email.

Once the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming—deplete their groundwater reserves beyond the point of no return, they will run out of options. Usually, the states rely on aboveground reservoirs like Lake Mead to help them weather dry years. But the water level at Lake Mead has fallen to a historic low, and other reservoirs are drying up fast.

It will get worse, especially as the region grows hotter because of climate change.

“The rapid rates of groundwater depletion will lead to further declines in Colorado River steam flows and, combined with declining snowpack and population growth, will likely threaten the long-term ability” to supply water to the seven states, said Castle.

With less water flowing into reservoirs, the states will keep pumping irreplaceable groundwater reserves. That “poses a significant threat to the long-term water security of the region,” concluded the report, which is to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

So what to do? First, fill in the data gap to figure out exactly how much water is left so decisions can be made about its management for the future. That’s where the satellite program called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment comes in. The satellite measures tiny changes in an area’s gravitational pull to determine its groundwater capacity.

“There’s only one way to put together a very large–area study like this, and that is with satellites,” Jay Famiglietti,  a coauthor of the report and a senior water cycle scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.