Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead is known as the largest reservoir in the United States. As one of the first national recreation areas in the country, it’s also a top natural destination in Vegas. It’s popular for its outdoor activities like boating, camping, cycling, fishing, hiking, and swimming. Plus, it’s ranked as one of the country’s best freshwater lakes for scuba diving.
Formed in the 1930s from the damming of the Colorado River at the Arizona-Nevada border, Lake Mead provides water supply to around 25 million people across the Western US (Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego) and Mexico. Together with Lake Powell, it also provides hydropower and irrigation for numerous communities across the region, especially those in rural farms and tribal nations.
Unfortunately, in June 2021, it was reported that the water level at Lake Mead dropped to historic low levels of 1,071.57 feet above sea level. Currently, the Colorado River has only 40% of the amount of water it can store, down from the previous year’s 49%.
Worse, in January 2022, Lake Mead is expected to be at 1,065.85 feet above sea level. In addition, if this pace keeps falling, the reservoir’s elevation could drop to more dangerous levels – an estimated 1,037.73 feet by July 2023.
The Causes of the Lake Mead Water Shortage
Following a major climate report by the United Nations, it was revealed that climate change has greatly impacted the water cycle. In particular, extreme weather conditions – including scorching temperatures, expansive wildfires, flooding and landslides, dry soil conditions, and intense droughts – caused unprecedented low levels in Lake Mead.
In addition, severe drought exacerbated the lowering water levels, as there was less snowpack to feed into rivers, streams, and lakes in the area. And the little runoff from snow in the spring was immediately absorbed by the dry soil before it could even reach the essential bodies of water.
Similarly, a UN report emphasized that humans and their activities also played a role in climate change, which leads to drought frequency and intensity. Droughts that used to happen every 10 years or so now happen 70% more often. In fact, US Drought Monitor reports that 95% of the West Coast was in drought in August.
What Has Been Done
The Bureau of Reclamation, states, tribes, and other stakeholders have been planning for drought conditions to get more severe. As such, they are creating contingency plans on who should have the water allowance priority or reduction. Some water users have also voluntarily reduced their share in an effort to help the farmers and tribes.
In a CNN Report, Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the US Department of the Interior, urges that “the best strategy for planning is to think about a broad range of scenarios and a broad range of potential hydrology, and to work closely with our partners in the basin to try to think through all of those scenarios."
The federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. As a result, in mid-August 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation declared mandatory water cuts starting January 1, 2022, for all states receiving water sources coming from Lake Mead.
Under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines and the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico, this means reductions in contributions for each state forming the Lower Basin. According to the federal guidelines, Arizona will see an 18% drop in the total Colorado River supply. Likewise, Nevada is set to get a 7% reduction in its annual allotment, and Mexico will also lose 5% of its yearly water supply portion.
States, local agencies, tribes, and other water users still need to negotiate which users will see the reduction allocations. For instance, water cuts to Central Arizona farmers will be seriously damaging as representatives from the industry anticipate around 30% of Pinal County farmland being unplanted next year.
If Lake Mead levels continue to fall, additional cuts will be implemented. Unfortunately, each tier cut will also worsen the impact on agriculture and municipal water supply. Second-tier cuts could come as soon as 2023 if the water levels drop to 1,050 feet.
As shared in the CNN report, senior water and climate scientist from Colorado State University, Brad Udall, notes, “Climate change is water change, and many of the worst impacts we're going to see out of climate change are through changes in the water cycle. Not only do we have to plan for these undesirable water outcomes, but we also have to get our act together and reduce greenhouse gases as fast as we can.”
Ultimately, all these measures are meant to prevent the reservoir from going below 1,020 feet, according to officials. Plus, doing so will also help ensure that there is sufficient water in the reservoir to keep generating power and provide water for essential uses.
Mother Nature gives us so much, and it's our responsibility to take care of her in return. We hope that in time, we can correct course and get the water levels back up to where they need to be.