The water war that will decide the fate of 1 in 8 Americans

Lake Mead is the country’s biggest reservoir of water. Think of it as the savings account for the entire Southwest. Right now, that savings account is nearly overdrawn.

For generations, we’ve been using too much of the Colorado River, the 300-foot-wide ribbon of water that carved the Grand Canyon, supplies Lake Mead, and serves as the main water source for much of the American West.

The river sustains one in eight Americans — about 40 million people — and millions of acres of farmland. In the next 40 years, the region is expected to add at least 10 million more people, as the region’s rainfall becomes more erratic.

An especially dismal snowpack this past winter has forced a long-simmering dispute over water rights to the fore, one that splits people living above and below Lake Mead.

Users of Colorado River water below Lake Mead — including the cities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas (collectively referred to as the “lower basin”) — rely on the reservoir as a lifeline. The people in the lower basin exist partly at the mercy of what happens in the upper basin, an area encompassing the snowcapped peaks of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico, the source region of the river.

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