The decades-long historic megadrought that has squeezed the American Southwest has emptied Lake Mead of nearly two-thirds of its water, leaving it at its lowest level since the 1930s. The Colorado River reservoir – best known for its association with the Hoover Dam – serves 25 million people throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, however, its contents have been declining significantly since the start of the new Millenium, and manmade climate change appears to be the primary cause.
“Even without climate change, we would have a problem because we’re taking more water out than the river could provide,” John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, told CNN on Thursday. “But climate change has made the problem much worse by substantially reducing the flow in the river.”
In 2000, “Lake Mead peaked at an elevation of 1,214 feet. The highest recorded level was in 1983 when it was 1,225 feet above sea level. Experts say it may never be full again. Lake Mead is now at 36 percent capacity — a number that will continue to fall as the reservoir’s rapid decline continues to outpace projections from just a few months earlier. Water levels are projected to drop another 20 feet by 2022,” CNN reported.
Put another way, Lake Mead has lost an incomprehensible 5.5 trillion gallons of water over the last twenty years.
Consequently, the Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric power output (which is totally renewable) has dropped from 2,000 megawatts to 1,500 megawatts within the last several weeks alone.
If water levels fall another 175 feet past the “dead pool” threshold at 825 feet, the Hoover Dam will no longer function, potentially cutting off water to millions of Americans living in or around the desert.
“This [rapid decline] scares me. It’s dropping so fast that it may be overreaching our ability to cope with the problems. I did not anticipate the bottom to drop this quickly, and we’re only talking about Lake Mead,” Fleck told CNN, adding, “What we need to do is recognize the science behind this reality and that this does not get better. We’re all going to have to deal with less and collaborate on a new set of numbers that reflects the reality of the science today.”
In a subsequent interview with The Hill, Fleck explained that elected officials have known about the possibility of major water shortages for more than a century but have largely ignored it, opting instead to punt the proverbial football to future generations.
“Politicians in the 1920s ignored science and promised more water to the cities and farms of the west than the river can deliver. So we’d be in trouble even without climate change. But warming temperatures are making the problem worse, by increasing evaporation so less water can make it downstream to users,” he said.
“We’re about to begin negotiating a new set of Colorado River water management rules, and we need to base the discussions on a realistic assessment of how deeply climate change is going to cut into the river’s flow,” Fleck continued. “There’s a danger of repeating the mistake of a century ago and ignoring the inconvenient science. But only if we take the science seriously can we plan for the difficult future.”
All of this is leading toward a likely declaration of a water shortage, perhaps as soon as late this summer.
“Mother Nature is in charge. The basin has experienced more than 20 years of drought and we continue to drain an over-allocated river system. I don’t think anything short of a miracle can forestall a shortage declaration in August,” said Kathryn Sorensen, a member of the board of advisors at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute. “It’s really important that water providers put the infrastructure in place that makes sure that they can move alternative supplies where they need to go when Colorado River supplies run short.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times ominously reported on Thursday, “The current Southwestern drought is the driest 20 year period since the last megadrought in the late 1500s, and the second-driest since the 800s. Time will tell whether it lasts as long, or longer.”
But even after accounting for natural fluctuations in the climactic patterns, The Times noted, “those ancient megadroughts occurred long before smokestacks and tailpipes started spewing carbon dioxide into the air, warming the planet and changing the climate. Global warming is affecting droughts now, and accounts for about half of the severity of the current Southwestern drought.”
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.