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Several parts of Mountain West experience ‘extreme water stress’ each year

A wide shot of Lake Mead and the surrounding mountains. The sky is blue and clouds are hanging at the mountain peaks.
Mark Gunn
Flickr Creative Commons
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., is fed by the drought-stricken Colorado River.

New research shows that in much of the world, water supplies for drinking, bathing and farming are being threatened. That includes sections of the Mountain West.

The World Resources Institute calls it “extreme water stress” – meaning at least 80% of the available supply is being used each year.

The research group’s updated Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas shows the phenomenon happening across several basins in the Mountain West. That includes both the Great Basin and Colorado River Basin in Nevada and Utah; the Mississippi-Missouri Basin in Wyoming and Colorado; the Rio Grande Basin in Colorado and New Mexico; and the Columbia Basin in Idaho.

Water shortages in these basins and in other water-stressed regions could grow even more intense with climate change, according to Newsha Ajami, chief development officer for research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Earth and Environmental Sciences Area.

“We may end up with longer dry periods, hotter temperatures, lower snowpack,” Ajami said. “As we're thinking about, what kind of infrastructure do we need to build resilience in the West, we have to keep this transition in mind.”

Ajami called for more investments to reuse water – like recycling wastewater into drinking water – and to store more water underground. She noted that the amount of water stored by dams each year is unreliable due to climate change.

Currently, about 50% of the world’s population – 4 billion people – are exposed to water stress for at least one month a year, according to the institute. The group says by 2050 that number could be closer to 60%.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureaud, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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