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Lake Mead Hits Historic Low

Climate

Lake Mead hit a record low last night by falling below 1,075 feet in elevation at 1,074.98 feet, which would trigger a water-supply shortage if the reservoir doesn't recover by January. The threshold for mandatory cuts was set in a 2007 agreement as part of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Colorado River Interim Guidelines. These cuts would be the first set of mandatory water delivery curtailments to Lake Mead. Should the water levels continue to drop, as they are expected to, more cuts would be required.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce a 2016 shortage this August if its projections show that Lake Mead will still be below 1,075 feet in January.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

"Water managers expect the lake's elevation level to rebound enough to ward off a 2016 shortage thanks to a wetter-than-expected spring," says The Arizona Republic. However, Rose Davis, a Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman, told The Arizona Republic, "We still need a lot more water."

The U.S. had the wettest month ever recorded in May—"the wettest places were parts of Arizona, Southern California, Northern Utah, a tiny spot in Nevada and a small spot on the border of Texas and Oklahoma, where precipitation was at least 500 percent of average," said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Still, the recent rains were not enough to end the Southwest's 15-year drought.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce a 2016 shortage this August if its projections show that Lake Mead will still be below 1,075 feet in January. The elevation, which is recorded hourly, climbed to 1,075.05 feet this morning. Davis says the agency is expecting several more drops below 1,075 feet in the coming weeks, but they estimate the lake level will rise by the end of the year to about 1,081 feet, according to CBS News. Still, many water policy experts are pushing for long-term solutions.

"Drought or no drought, the river is over-allocated," Drew Beckwith, water policy manager with the Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization, told The Arizona Republic. "Lower-basin states take more than the river system can sustain. The upper basin hasn't used its full allocation for years, which has kept the problem at bay because the excess is sent to Lake Mead. But that setup won't last."

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The entire Colorado River system has been over-allocated for decades, according to water experts like Beckwith. "The drought has just hastened that reality," he said.

"The Colorado River has been cut to death—all 5 trillion gallons a year drained, depleted, dried up," says Gary Wockner, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Colorado. "The dams have devastated the river's health and the former 2-million acre wetland in the Colorado River Delta is now a sand-duned wasteland."

"The dropping water levels in Lake Mead are the condor in the coal mine—we must hear its voice," says Wockner. "The health of the river and water supplies across the Southwest U.S. are continuing to decline. People are literally draining everything."

There is serious concern that as water becomes increasingly scarce in the drought-stricken West, cooperation will break down and "lower-basin states would have to do a ‘call on the river,’ where the lower basin will have to legally demand that the water is sent down river,” says Wockner.

For now, Western states are working together to address the problem. "Major river users agreed last year to leave hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in Lake Mead by 2017 that they would otherwise take," reports The Arizona Republic. 

Lake Mead 1-Week Daily Elevation Projections

Las Vegas and Phoenix, among other desert cities, have already made major cutbacks in their water use with Las Vegas decreasing water use by 30 percent in 10 years and Phoenix having reduced its overall water consumption by 27 percent in 20 years, despite both cities having some of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. Still, the two cities could be seeing even more curtailments since Arizona and Southern Nevada would get the biggest mandatory cuts should the Bureau of Reclamation announce a 2016 water shortage.

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