Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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How Low Can You Go?

The water level in Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, reached its lowest point on record back in May and the situation has not improved since then.

Water levels in the lake fell to 1,074 in May, down from an average of 1,084 feet in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, leaving the lake at 37% of capacity The region has suffered from a drought that has lasted more than a decade with the snow packs that feed the lake continuing to be lower than average over the past few years. Recent images of the lake show just how far water levels have dropped with “bathtub ring” markings indicating the higher height of the reservoir.

At 1073ft above sea level, the July reading at the Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead, was the lowest elevation since the reservoir was filled in the late 1930s.  The currently level also falls below the initial threshold of 1075ft that triggers emergency rationing measures across several states.

The manmade lake provides crucial water to parts of Arizona, Nevada and California, including the Los Angeles region. The federal government could implement emergency measures if the water level remains at 1,075 feet or below at the end of the year. Those measures would require reductions in water delivery to Nevada and Arizona.  California and Mexico would be exempt.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects the lake’s levels to drop to 1,071 feet over the summer during peak demand before rising to 1,078 at the end of the year.

However, the crucial measurement is not the current level but the mid-August assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation for 1 January 2017. And if it is below that threshold an official water shortage at Lake Mead will be declared.  The El Nino present over the past year delivered significant rain and snow fall to the West but not enough to truly impact the severe drought conditions.  If a La Nina follows, the region could see itself once again covered by extreme drought conditions that negatively impact all reservoirs and make sever water rationing the rule rather than the exception.

Lake Mead Water Level – July 2016Lalke Mead July 2016


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Reaching A New Low

The Associated Press reports that water levels in Lake Mead in Nevada have dropped to the lowest level since it was originally filled in the 1930s,  leaving Las Vegas facing existential threats unless something is done. Las Vegas and its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year get almost all their drinking water from the Lake and at levels below 1075ft (the level is currently several inches below that mark), the Interior Department will be forced to declare a “shortage,” which will lead to significant cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

The lake is now approximately 37% of capacity and features a distinctive white mineral bathtub ring that demonstrates the 130 feet in surface level that has been lost since the turn of the century.

From USA Today:

The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river

As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

As population growth and heavy demand for water collide with hotter temperatures and reduced snowpack in the future, there will be an even greater mismatch between supply and demand, said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in water and energy issues.

“The question becomes how to resolve this mismatch across states that all depend on the river to support their economic growth,” Sanders said. She expects incentives and markets to help ease some of the strains on water supplies, “but it is going to be tricky to make the math work in the long term.”