Bodies of water across North America are drying up as a result of drought and reduced rainfall, experts told ABC News.
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that the 22-year mega drought affecting the west would not only intensify but also spread east.
That prediction appears to be coming true, with about 82% of the continental US currently experiencing conditions ranging from unusually dry to exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.
And while the US and North America continue to see water levels in key rivers, lakes and reservoirs drop, a mix of climate change and poor water management policies are causing similar events around the world, experts told ABC News.
“Rivers around the world are very low,” particularly the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, as well as significant bodies of water in countries like Italy, Romania, France and China, Jonathan Deason, professor of the environment and energy management program at George Washington University.
The experts said a two-pronged approach that includes mitigating climate change and better water management policies will be crucial as water bodies continue to dry up. But so much damage has already been done that even drastic improvements or reductions in emissions will not have an immediate impact on reducing water pollution, they said.
Here are some recent examples of water bodies drying up in North America:
Shipwreck, human remains found in Mississippi
Falling water levels along the Mississippi River, one of the country’s most important trade routes, have made waves around the world.
Earlier this month, barges carrying shipping containers began cruising along the river’s sandbars, which previously held plentiful water.
The waters along the Mississippi have receded so much that a ferry, probably built in the late 19th century,
Much of the Mississippi River region is experiencing conditions ranging from unusually dry to severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.
The Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, reached its lowest level in recorded history on Monday, with several other levels in danger of also setting records.
Delays in the supply chain for goods like grain, cement and fuel being shipped through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico could be a result of a dry Mississippi River, experts say.
“What’s happening is merchant ships are having problems and obstacles are coming up,” Deason said. “The waters used to be so deep that it made no difference to navigation.”
Ripple effects include inflation and rising food and commodity prices, Deason added.
Water levels are likely to worsen and fall further before rising again, Jonathan Remo, an associate professor in Southern Illinois University’s School of Earth Systems and Sustainability, told ABC News last week.
Great Salt Lake continues to shrink
The Great Salt Lake, the world’s largest saltwater lake and the largest terminal lake in the Western Hemisphere, continues to lose volume at an alarming rate.
According to a study published in Nature Geoscience, by 2017 the lake had lost half of its water since the first settlers arrived in 1847. It’s now a third of its original capacity and has reached unsustainable levels, researchers told PBS.
Water loss in the lake, now at an all-time low, is already causing a dangerous ecological ripple effect across Utah, and it’s likely to get worse, scientists told ABC News in July. More than 800 square miles of river have been exposed as a result of the drought.
“I don’t know how much time we have,” Joel Ferry, the director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News.
While most of the decline is attributed to development in the region, leading to rapid population growth, researchers say climate change and drought are also to blame.
Animals and plants near the lake are already bearing the burden of drying out, Kyle Stone, a wildlife biologist for the state of Utah, told ABC News. Salt levels in the water increase as water levels drop, killing algae, a source of brine shrimp, which serve as food for more than 10 million birds that stop by the lake during their migratory patterns, Stone said.
If the lake were to dry up, dust storms would be a major problem because of the decades of heavy metals and toxic substances that remain trapped in the sediment, scientists said.
Tens of thousands of dead salmon wash up in Canada
Researchers in British Columbia encountered a disturbing sight during spawning season earlier this month while monitoring salmon populations in the Neekus River in the Heiltsuk area.
Instead, when the scientists got there, they discovered about 65,000 dead pink salmon on the banks of the dried-up creek. The odor was so bad that it stung researchers’ noses and eyes, forcing them to cover their faces, Allison Dennert, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, told the BBC.
“This was the worst mass die-off of salmon, pre-spawning salmon, that I have ever seen,” Dennert said.
Little rain has fallen in the region, which has seen high temperatures in recent months — a continuation of an atmospheric ridge that has plagued the Pacific Northwest with record-breaking temperatures.
The large school of fish may have been fooled by a single rain shower that coincided with the high tide and moved upstream to spawn for the season, the researchers said.
The tens of thousands of fish eventually sucked up all the oxygen in the creek’s low water levels. Once they were immobilized and began to die off, the ammonia remaining in the water exacerbated the mass die-off.
More than 70% of the salmon didn’t have a chance to spawn before the water level in the creek dropped, Dennert tweeted Oct. 4.
“I would say it’s pretty safe to say that this is a result of climate change,” Dennert said.
Missing snowmelt to refill the Platt River
Stunning images from Nebraska shed light on the harsh reality of the consequences of declining snow cover.
The Platte River in central Nebraska, which is fed by snowmelt from Wyoming and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains that flow into Lake McConaughy, hasn’t had a chance to refill as winter snow falls.
Photos of a section of Interstate 90 near Kearney, Nebraska show a completely dried up river bed under a bridge that was previously filled with river water.
More than a third of the Pratte River is in extreme or worse conditions, with a dry fall rainfall outlook, the drought center tweeted Monday.
Irrigation has depleted most of the reservoirs in northeast and southwest Nebraska, both of which are being hit by extreme drought, reported KLKN, ABC’s Lincoln, Nebraska affiliate.
Large areas of the state have been “fairly dry and fairly warm” since early July, leading to a dramatic increase in water demand and crop water use, Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, told KLKN.
While it’s not uncommon for the river to dry up during the irrigation season, experts are monitoring the river downstream of Columbus as an indicator of the river’s overall condition, Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, told KLKN.
“If you don’t have a river downstream of the Loup River, that’s a really big deal,” Farnsworth said.
In the West, drinking water supplies continue to dwindle
As the mega-drought continues in the West, the reservoirs that support homes and the vast farming industry will drop dangerously low.
Water supplies along the Colorado River and the two largest reservoirs in the country it supplies—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—continue to decline.
Farther west, reservoirs in California are also drying up, Pablo Ortiz, a climate and water scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ABC News.
Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta, the state’s two largest reservoirs, have little more than 30% capacity, and all but one of California’s major reservoirs are below historical averages, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Additionally, more than 60% of monitored groundwater wells in California are within normal conditions, and more than 21% are currently at historically low levels, Ortiz said. Workers drilling in groundwater wells have told Ortiz that groundwater levels have dropped by as much as 10 feet in some regions, Ortiz said.
“This affects hundreds of communities that rely on groundwater as their primary source of drinking water,” as well as the agricultural industry, he said.
ABC News’ Kenton Gewecke and Samantha Wnek contributed to this report.
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