Lake Mead Water Level Drops To Record Low -- 16-Year Drought Threatens Reservoir Water Supply To Numerous States

The U.S. Midwest has been experiencing a severe drought, the most intensive experienced in five years, and the havoc it has wreaked has now extended to dropping the water levels of Lake Mead to an all-time low. Lake Mead is the United States' largest reservoir and over 20 million people are served through this now endangered source of water. The current level is its lowest since it was first filled in the 1930s.

The record-setting lows at Lake Mead fell below a previous record set in June 2015 as of Wednesday night. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who is charged with managing the Lake Mead reservoir as well as the Hoover Dam, made the announcement and said that as of Friday, the water level in the reservoir had dropped to 1,074.34 feet and this is what brought it to the all-time low since its original construction. A spokeswoman for the reclamation bureau, Rose Davis, gave a statement, according to the Daily Mail, about the predictions made based on the current trend.

"We have passed the historic low of June 25, 2015. We expect the lake to continue to drop to levels near 1,070 feet by the end of June. However, they are expected to be back by Dec. 31 above the levels that would trigger a shortage declaration in 2017."
The strains placed on the arguably over-allocated Colorado River during these 16 years of drought have significantly affected the water levels of the reservoir near Las Vegas, and climate change has only added to the pressures being faced because of the worryingly low water levels, which also caused a massive stir in 2014 with the levels then. Despite the hope expressed by Davis, if Lake Mead does continue to drop the pressure, it would be on the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018 and this means that water sent to the reservoirs in Arizona and Nevada would experience cutbacks.
The possibility of such an occurrence has mounted political pressures for California, Arizona, and Nevada to sort out a deal involving temporary shared cutbacks of water withdrawals from Lake Mead so as to prevent an even more severe water shortage later on. The three states would be the ones facing the most crippling water shortages if the water levels in the reservoir drop further, though California has the most rights to the water from the Colorado river and would not face shortage problems until the lowest point is hit.

The high-water capacity for Lake Mead is about 1,225 feet but currently it is only 37 percent full. If it reaches 900 feet, Lake Mead would become a "dead pool," meaning that nothing from the Hoover Dam would flow downstream.

The full capacity of the reservoir has not been reached since 1983, and as the Colorado River basin has reeled under the historic drought, water levels have been falling consistently. The predictions made by Brad Udall, a climate research scientist at Colorado State University, paints a much more dire picture for Lake Mead but stated that mutual cooperation could lessen the effects.

"This problem is not going away and it is likely to get worse, perhaps far worse, as climate change unfolds. Unprecedented high temperatures in the basin are causing the flow of the river to decline. The good news is that we have time and the smarts to manage this, if all the states work together."
Davis did advise that "everyone is working together to see how we can leave more water in the system" right now so that Lake Mead does not fall below 1,075 feet by the end of the current year. 11 Alive states that according to the federal guidelines provided for operations of the reservoir, the Interior Department would declare a shortage if predictions of water levels for 2016 would be below 1,075 feet. Right now the Bureau of Reclamation calculates a 10 percent chance of a 2017 shortage but a much higher projection by 2018 -- a 59 percent likelihood.

However, a new report is expected by August and chances are its predictions will line up with those of Udall's.

[Photo Courtesy of Ethan Miller/ Getty Images]