SACRAMENTO, Calif. — While officials urged California residents to conserve water in the face of diminished supply from snow pack in the Sierras, researchers issued a dire forecast for the long-term future:
A 50 percent chance exists that Lake Mead, the primary water supply for millions in the Southwest, will be dry by 2021 if the climate changes as expected and water usage is not curtailed.
Marine physicist Tim Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce also estimated a 10 percent chance that the lake could be dry by 2014, with a 50 percent chance that reservoir levels could become too low to allow hydroelectric power generation by 2014.
Possibly most disturbingly, the two researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography explained that they chose to go with "conservative estimates" in their analyses and that the shortage is likely to be worse in reality. For example, they based their findings on the premise that effects from climate change began in 2007, although many scientists believe that changes began many decades earlier.
In their paper, "When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?," the duo concluded that human demand, climate change and natural forces such as evaporation are creating a net deficit of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River system. That's enough to supply about 8 million people.
Based on past water demand, scheduled water allocations and predicted climate conditions, the system could run dry even if mitigation measures now being proposed are implemented, they added.
More immediately, Californians are being asked to water lawns less, plant native shrubs and install more efficient irrigation systems.
"We need to recognize that we're in a water shortage and begin acting accordingly," said resources secretary Mike Chrisman.
Rationing isn't yet being implemented by communities, but plans are being made. In Southern California, meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District recently raised its rates by 14 percent and has cut deliveries to farmers by 30 percent.
"We're in a pretty painful water supply picture," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager. "We don't want to institute rationing, but if this continues, you will see us take a look at that next year."
Elsewhere across California:
• Residents of Long Beach aren't allowed to run fountains, and it's illegal for restaurants to serve customers water unless they ask for it.
• In Riverside County, residential and retail building is on hold because water supplies can't be guaranteed.
• In Coachella Valley, which includes resort communities around Palm Springs, water managers want to implement a tiered water-pricing system so that those who use more will pay more.
• Pumping out of the Sacramento Delta has been cut back to comply with a judge's order to protect threatened fish species.
• Farmers in Fresno and Kings counties haven't planted about 200,000 acres of crops, while growers in San Diego County are stumping citrus and avocado trees because of water shortages.
"It's problems stacked on top of other problems," said John Harris, who isn't farming about a third of his 12,000 acres this year.
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