The changes on Lake Mead may not look as extreme as other areas due to the zoomed-out nature of these two snapshots, but the wide view affords us some important perspective. The shrinkage is still palpable, to be sure, but so is one of the causes.
Henderson, Nevada, and the outskirts of Las Vegas are visible to the west of the lake. Rapid expansion in the Sun Belt over the past few decades has put immense pressure on already fragile water resources. Agriculture and other industrial activities in one of the driest places in North America have also taken their toll, to be sure. So, too, has climate change. The West has become increasingly dry even as more people have flocked to the region. It now faces its worst megadrought in at least 1,200 years. That drought took a huge toll on Indigenous culture in the region, forcing a wholesale change in how people live.
Whether the current megadrought—not to mention worse ones projected to come this century—cause a similar shift remains to be seen. Nevada did take a small step towards conservation by banning “non-functional” grass in places like office parks and medians, though the rule won’t take effect until 2027. But that alone is nowhere near enough to meet the scale of the water crisis in the West. Instead, meeting the moment will take new feats of engineering, new habits by citizens, and conservation at a scale never seen. Similarly, massive reductions in carbon pollution not just by the U.S. but other nations around the world will be needed if the West’s fate isn’t to be buried under hardened, parched Earth.