The Collapse of Lake Mead: Water Loss in America’s Biggest Reservoir

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Lake Mead

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Sitting along the Colorado River, held back by the massive Hoover Dam, sits Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the United States. Lake Mead has a problem, one that can be clearly seen in photos taken in 1985 versus 2010. Lake Mead is shrinking.  This massive man-made lake is losing vast volumes of water.

Indeed, scientists from the Scripp’s Oceanographic Institute have predicted that it might run dry by 2021.

How big is the water loss problem? The lake’s level has dropped so much that one can see “bathtub rings” on the mountains that rise out of the lake, reminders of where the water used to be. The amount of water currently in the reservoir is only 39% of what it can hold, with a drop of about 40 metres since the year 2000. Another 15 metres, and the reservoir will not have sufficient volume to run the generators at Hoover Dam, and 15 metres below that, the water intakes for Las Vegas become high and dry. Marinas on the lake have either been relocated or simply shut down.

The City of Las Vegas draws 90% of its water from Lake Mead. While they are working on an emergency source if the water loss becomes too high, one just has to wander down the Las Vegas strip to see the core of the problem.  From the Dancing Waters of the Bellagio, to the waterpark and aquarium of Mandalay Bay, Vegas simply consumes far too much water for a city in the middle of the desert.

Even the offer by the city of Las Vegas to homeowners, to turn yards into naturescapes, doesn’t go far enough. $1 a square foot will get you about $2000-$3000 for an average city-sized lot. Which may be just enough to pay for the work of getting it landscaped. The problem is far bigger than lawn watering, though. It’s backyard pools, golf greens, fountains and waterparks, along with desert crop irrigation.  It is having a city of 1.8 million people in a desert that gets, on average, 11 centimetres of precipitation per year.

The Colorado River, and by extension Lake Mead, are fed largely from snow runoff in the Rocky Mountains. Over the past several years, snowfall levels have been dropping due to global climate change, and with them the spring runoff has been declining.  Higher temperatures also result in more surface evaporation from Lake Mead and other reservoirs along the Colorado’s length, increasing demands on the river. The Colorado is so heavily utilized that it is often dry before it reaches the ocean.

If the current rate of climatic change continues, with it’s effects on the water flowing through the Colorado River system, if is hard to see how a city as large as Las Vegas can continue to function, certainly almost impossible at its current rates of water consumption. Water savings and water controls will become more necessary, which will have the likely effect of changing the landscape of Vegas and seeing much of it returned to the desert. Finally, then its water consumption will match what the environment can provide.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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