If America’s largest man-made lake were a glass of water, would it be considered half full or half empty? Lake Mead, located 24 miles from the Las Vegas strip on the border of Nevada and Arizona, hit consecutive record lows in 2016, declining to an elevation of 1074 ft., its lowest level since the lake was originally filled in the 1930s. Although the news of Lake Mead’s record surface level made the headlines of every local newspaper and even publications world-wide, the fact that Lake Mead is suffering from severe drought is not breaking news. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the elevation of Lake Mead has toggled in and out of drought emergency status, identified at an elevation of 1,125 ft., since 2004. The Colorado River Basin, which includes Lake Mead, has experienced drought for 16 years and has declined to about half of capacity, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In response to the critical drought conditions, a third intake, nicknamed the “third straw,” has been constructed at Lake Mead to enable Las Vegans to receive drinking water from the Lake if it reaches levels as low as 860 ft. The intake was an $817 million project and is being followed by the construction of the lake’s third pumping station, anticipated to be complete in 2020 and cost another $650 million. It is evident by investment alone that the future capacity of the lake is in jeopardy which would affect not only Las Vegans, but residents in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and northern parts of Mexico.
As the lake gets lower, the stakes get higher. According to the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study of 2012 from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River and its tributaries supply more than 1 in 10 Americans with at least some of their municipal water supply, provide irrigation water to more than 5.5 million acres of land, are an essential resource to at least 22 federally recognized Tribes, and support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity that provide power to millions of people.
To complicate things further, Lake Mead is a body of water that is narrower at the bottom, which means the lower it gets, the faster it gets lower. The lake is currently only 37% full. At the 900 ft. mark, Arizona and Mexico will no longer receive water. So if Lake Mead were a glass of water, is it half full or half empty? The answer: it depends on which direction the water is headed, and currently, it is more than half empty…and draining.