Lake Mead Hits Record Lows: Will the West’s Water Supply Dry Up?
This week, America’s largest reservoir Lake Mead will hit a record, and not a good one. According to forecasts from the Bureau of Reclamation, Las Vegas’ main water source will fall to its lowest level since 1937 when the reservoir was filled.
People living in the Colorado River Basin won’t see any restrictions implemented in the near future, but they’re coming . In 2016, Lake Mead is projected to drop below 1,075 feet, which will reduce the amount of water going to Arizona and Nevada. At that time, you can be sure water rationing will be on the cards. One of the worst affected areas could be Las Vegas.
As Brett Walton of Circle of Blue reports:
No area is more vulnerable than Las Vegas, which draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. Today, in the midst of the basin’s driest 14-year period in the historical record, the gambler’s paradise is completing an expensive triage. The regional water authority is spending at least $US 829 million of ratepayer money to dig two tunnels — one at the lake bottom that will be completed next spring and the other an emergency connection between existing intakes — to ensure that the 2 million residents of southern Nevada can still drink from Mead as more of the big lake reverts to desert.
In the face of this crisis you would expect states to be looking at ways to decrease their water usage. Not so. In fact, they’re planning on using more water.
“Yet despite a shrinking lake, diminishing supplies, and ardent pleas from tour guides and environmental groups to preserve a canyon-cutting marvel, the four states in the basin upriver from Lake Mead intend to increase the amount of water they take out of the Colorado River. All of the states are updating or developing new state water strategies, most of which involve using more Colorado River water, not less,” writes Walton.
The Colorado River Basin is not only an iconic landscape, it’s also a lifeline for millions of people throughout the West and Mexico. The watershed provides drinking water for 40 million people, and sustains over four million acres of farmland, responsible for 15 percent of the nation’s food. Without the mighty Colorado many of us wouldn’t eat or drink. But misuse of the water has led to severe shortages, and Lake Mead isn’t alone. Earlier this year, drought left Lake Powell half-full, and it’s expected to top out at just 51 percent capacity this year.
In fact, we’re using so much water that for decades the Colorado River has failed to reach the ocean. While it’s true that about 80 percent of that water is being used for farming, in cities more than half of municipal water supplies go to watering lawns. We have to start asking ourselves the question: do we want green lawns or do we want to eat?
There are conservation programs in place, but there’s no denying that we need more. According to the New York Times, “Arizona farmers reduce runoff, for example, by using laser technology to ensure that their fields are table flat. The state consumes essentially as much water today as in 1955, even as its population has grown nearly twelvefold.”
As we drive straight into this water crisis, it’s clear that we need better policies in place that help us to plan responsibly for future generations. Otherwise we’re looking at dried up river basins, and a very different American West than the one we know today.
Photo Credit: xiquinhosilva