The conditions at Lake Mead seem to get worse each year. It is the largest reservoir in the United States and it supplies water to 20 million people living in 3 states in the Southwest.
The water level in the lake is dangerously low and is anticipated to drop another 20 feet this year, which would place the water level perilously close to drought stage levels. This change in water levels would require the implementation of water conservation protocols throughout the region.
Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States and the 16th largest man-made lake in the entire world. It is located 24 miles southeast of Las Vegas, and it is responsible for supplying 90% of the water supply for the internationally renowned tourist resort.
The reservoir is supplied water through the Hoover Dam and the adjoining Lake Powell via the Colorado River through snow melt in the Rocky Mountains and rainfall as well. The water level decrease is due to less snow fall in those mountain areas and shifts in rainfall patterns.
An Ongoing Problem
The water level decrease has been a consistent and ongoing problem over the past several years at Lake Mead. Since the year 2000, the reservoir has lost 4 trillion gallons of water. The Southern Nevada Water Authority which oversees the site, has significant concerns about the disruption in the water supply to Las Vegas and the surrounding areas served by Lake Mead.
Any disruption in the water supply would have a negative effect on tourism and for the residents of the resort city. The tourism dollars generated by Las Vegas and the other resort areas, fuel the economy for the entire state of Nevada, so the consequences here are steep.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority concedes that they have moved dangerously close to the drought stage water level before, but the weather pattern shifts have them very concerned at this juncture for the potential of a drought this summer.
Therefore, all of this data presents a central question: is this shift in water levels tied to climate change or is it a crisis? What steps can be taken to avert the potential for drought or water supply disruption? What role can technology or advancements in engineering play in this situation?
Las Vegas Misconception
The misconception about Las Vegas with regard to water use is that the city is excessive and wasteful when, in fact, the city recycles 93% of their water supply. The government also offers incentives for residents who remove their lawns to reduce the consumption of water.
These steps towards conservation leave very little more that the resort city can do to decrease their burden on the water supply system. In fact, the Las Vegas metropolitan area actually grew in population and decreased their overall use of water according to a report from CBS News.
In California, the government has placed restrictions on water use in several regions which are supplied by the reservoir in Lake Mead. So the effort toward water conservation is unified throughout the multi-state area supplied by this important reservoir.
Despite all of these efforts, the increasingly likely event of a drought persists to the south at Lake Mead, and the Colorado River which feeds the reservoir also shows signs of drying up. These are alarming events and the government is looking to take measures to avoid this situation.
The way that the reservoir surrounding the Hoover Dam is constructed allows for the diversion of water from Lake Powell over to Lake Mead, so that is the first evasive action that will take place in order to avert a drought level event from occurring.
The water levels in Lake Mead coupled with the choked supply of resources from the Colorado River have left the water plummeting toward falling below the intake tunnels, which would be a disastrous situation.
In response to these shifts in water level, climate patterns, and “snow pack” in the Rockies, the government is drilling a new intake tunnel to feed Lake Mead which is further down below the surface than the other intake system.
According to a report by CBS News and information provided by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, they have a massive drill working on the new intake which will be completed in 2015 at a total cost of approximately $800 million.
What if this situation is driven solely by climate change? What if the levels of snow continue to vary and the rainfall patterns continue to shift? How will these factors impact the future of Lake Mead, and thereby the future of Las Vegas?
The National Park Service estimates that 96% of the water in Lake Mead is supplied by melting snow from the Upper Rockies region. What if the snow fall amounts in that region decrease over a sustained period of years? That would spell a catastrophe for the water supply in those areas of the American West.
The flow of the Colorado River has been slowing down over the course of several years. It is obvious that warmer temperatures will lead to more evaporation and a decrease in flow from the river. In the area of water management that decrease in water flow from the river is a big problem because the water is already over allocated.
Therefore, any decrease in water flow will have drastic consequences and result in some form of disruption to the water supply. Climate change in the form of rising air temperatures will result in higher ozone levels which will impact power plant emissions which would be limited by the government to comply with ozone level regulations.
Higher air temperatures and drought conditions would cause increased health problems such as asthma, stroke, heart attack, and other respiratory or cardiovascular issues throughout Nevada. That would put the elderly population there at high risk and also drive up the cost of health care.
The future of Lake Mead and consequently, the water supply for people living in three states in the region, is uncertain. The experts admit they have no idea what impact this new intake will yield in 2015.
Many groups have suggested solutions to the water supply issues with the Colorado River and the reservoir at Lake Mead. It remains to be seen whether this situation will be isolated or if it is a crisis that will plague the region in the future.
Some people have called for the building of more dams, others have suggested the implementation of other systems to retain more water flow from the Rockies and contain the amount currently lost in runoff.
However, still other groups believe that the world is changing and that water conservation and other steps will only take the region so far; that life with water restrictions is going to be the rule rather than the exception. The future will be a lifestyle where the limitations on water will be an everyday part of living in that region.
I was struck by the amount of information that predicts a very bleak future for the water supply in Nevada and parts of Southern California. I have worked in the past with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they are very open minded about solutions and highly committed to providing the best quality water that they can in the conditions they are functioning within.
The future of this matter may be uncertain, but some aspects remain clear. A solution to this water level problem is needed before it reaches a crisis level. I hope that solution is found before it reaches that point. The future of Las Vegas depends upon it.
(Statistics and background information courtesy of CBS News, Science World Report, Las Vegas Sun, National Park Service, Sierra Club, Southern Nevada Water Authority, and NBC News)