8 Lakes and Rivers That Are Drying Up

Sunset over Colorado River from a Grand Canyon viewpoint
The Colorado River cuts through the Grand Canyon, but it's been slowly drying up for decades. Dean Fikar / Getty Images

It takes a lot of water to sustain a population of over 7 billion people (and rising). H20 is needed to grow food, produce energy, and manufacture products you may have never even considered. What's more, the average family of four can use 400 gallons or more of indoor water every day. The growing demand for water combined with an ever-warming climate has caused lakes and rivers around the world to dry up.

The American Southwest is a good example: The Colorado River, Lake Mead, and Lake Powell have all been consistently dwindling for decades. The same phenomenon is plaguing parched regions of Central Asia, Africa, and South America.

Here are eight lakes, rivers, and seas that are growing smaller by the year.

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Aral Sea (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan)

Satellite imagery of the dwindling Aral Sea

Mar de Aral (NASA Terra-Modis) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Central Asia's Aral Sea is the poster child for large, dried-up bodies of water. Where the lake once sat, on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there is now but a disconnected collection of small, seawater ponds sitting in a dusty bowl.

The Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began diverting the rivers that fed it for agricultural irrigation. With the receding waters went a large fishing industry, which led to high unemployment rates and a surplus of abandoned fishing boats on the former shoreline. Now entirely endorheic, the remaining bodies of water are reliant on precipitation.

What Is an Endorheic Lake?

An endorheic lake is a basin or lake that has no evident outlet to other bodies of water and loses water through evaporation or seepage.

In recent years, efforts have been made to divert more water back into the Aral Sea, but it's unlikely that it will ever regain its former size and glory. This disappearing lake has been called one of the biggest human-caused environmental bungles in history.

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Lake Poopó (Bolivia)

2013 satellite view of a green Lake Poopó

NASA Earth Observatory, Jesse Allen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When NASA trained the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite in January 2016, the space agency discovered a dried-up bed where Bolivia's second-largest lake once spanned 1,200 square miles. While not terribly deep—about nine feet—Lake Poopó played an important part in local living and wildlife.

About two-thirds of the 500-or-so families in the surrounding area, many of which survived by fishing in the lake, have already left the area to seek out better conditions. Meanwhile, fish have died by the millions, and hundreds of birds, including flamingos, have also died due to the dwindling of the lake. Drought, climate change, and diverting water from the lake's primary source are largely to blame for the Poopó's decline.

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Colorado River (U.S. and Mexico)

Aerial view of the Colorado River cutting through Grand Canyon
Bim / Getty Images

The Colorado River once ran from Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park through four other states and parts of Mexico before emptying into the Gulf of California (aka the Sea of Cortez). Today, the waters run dry long before they reach the historic river mouth, having been pulled and diverted to grow crops, hydrate towns and cities, water lawns, and fill up pools. What little is left at the U.S. border—often polluted with runoff from farms—is what Mexico gets.

A record, decades-long drought starting around the year 2000 greatly reduced the amount of rainfall feeding the Colorado River. Meanwhile, population—and, inevitably, the demand for water—grew. However, 2019 was a hopeful year: Strong storms and abundant rains helped recharge Colorado's reservoirs. The following year, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan went into effect to save this historic body of water, the Grand Canyon's creator.

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Lake Badwater (California)

Mostly dried-up Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park

Meinzahn / Getty Images

Whereas human demand is often to blame for the shrinking of lakes, the seasonal evaporation of Lake Badwater is totally natural. It, like the Aral Sea, is an endorheic basin, appearing only after rare rain storms in California's Death Valley. Located at 282 feet below sea level, it's the lowest point in North America. Interestingly enough, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney, is just 85 miles away.

With temperatures that can soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and almost no humidity, any moisture that gets left behind after a storm quickly dries up, so much so that even a 30-mile-long, 12-foot-deep lake would have trouble staying ahead of the yearly evaporation.

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Lake Chad (Central Africa)

Aerial view of Lake Chad at sunset

Around the World Photography / Getty Images

Lake Chad gives the Aral Sea a run for its money in the category of big-but-now-dry bodies of water. According to the United Nations, the lake lost as much as 95% of its volume from 1963 to 2001. The shallow lake (about 34 feet deep when full, but now averaging less than five feet in depth) has been hit hard by fluctuating rainfall patterns, overgrazing, deforestation, and increased demand from the surrounding populace.

Lake Chad almost dried up in 1908 and again in 1984. Aside from the environmental disruptions, the drying lake has also brewed up trouble between regional governments fighting over rights to its dwindling waters.

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Owens Lake (California)

Elevated view of a dry Owens Lake with snowy mountains
GeoStock / Getty Images

Until the early 1900s, Owens Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range was a robust body of water stretching up to 12 miles long and eight miles wide with an average depth of 23 to 50 feet. In 1913, the waters that fed into Owens Lake were diverted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Owens Lake's water levels quickly dropped until they reached current levels—mostly dried up. Today, the lake is a shallow (just three feet deep), much-reduced shadow of its pre-diversion self.

For years, LADWP flooded the dried-up lake bed to reduce the number of dust storms, which caused respiratory problems for nearby residents. But in 2014, it announced a new method involving turning moist clay from the lake bed into dust-bottling clods.

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Lake Powell (Arizona and Utah)

Reflection Canyon on Lake Powell at sunset

Stanley Chen Xi / Getty Images

Lake Powell, a scenic tourist attraction on the border of Arizona and Utah, is dwindling as a result of overuse and drought. An estimated 123 billion gallons of water seep into the porous sandstone that contains it every year.

The lake was originally created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River in the '50s. When the U.S. government resolved to build a dam in the region, the Sierra Club's David Brower suggested Glen Canyon as opposed to the originally proposed location, Echo Park, Colorado. Unfortunately, Brower made the suggestion before actually seeing Glen Canyon. Despite efforts to overturn the decision, the dam was constructed and miles of canyons, streams, and archeological and wildlife habitat were swallowed up by the waters.

Today, tourism takes a hit from low lake levels. One silver lining is that some of the previously submerged sites are seeing daylight again.

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Lake Mead (Nevada)

High-angle view of Lake Mead surrounded by desert

Reimar Palte / EyeEm / Getty Images

In just over a decade, Nevada's Lake Mead—which sits downriver from Lake Powell on the Colorado River—saw its total volume drop by more than 60%. Persistent drought and increased demand have wreaked havoc on water levels, sometimes draining three feet of depth in a month. Now, the lake is listed at 1,229 feet above sea level. Its all-time low was 1,074.03 feet above sea level, recorded at the Hoover Dam in 2016.

With demand not letting up and the climate continuing to warm, the future of Lake Mead is precarious. Water managers have the option of releasing water from Lake Powell to raise Lake Mead, but that won't solve the problem of having not enough water in the system in the first place, especially considering that three states—Arizona, Nevada, and California—rely on Lake Mead.