Dry as a Bone: Lake Mead's H2O Situation Just Got a Whole Lot Worse

The water reservoir has officially fallen to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built.

A buoy warning 'no boats' stands on dirt at the abandoned Echo Bay Marina on July 13, 2014, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The days of millions of Sin City residents and visitors who love swimming in, boating on, and drinking water siphoned from Lake Mead could be numbered. After 14 years of drought in the Southwest, the water reservoir created by the Hoover Dam has officially dipped to its lowest water level since it began filling up with water from the Colorado River in the 1930s.

On Sunday, the lake’s water level dropped to 1,081.7 feet above sea level, leaving the reservoir only 39 percent full. The body of water hasn’t been full since 1998, when it was about 1,296 feet above sea level. As the hot, dry summer months continue, the water level is expected to recede even more.

"It's time for us to wake up. If this drought continues, we're going to be in a terrible situation within the next 12–24 months," Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Desert Sun.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regional chief Terry Fulp said, however, that there's enough water to meet the needs of the 40 million people who call the region home, including folks who live in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

"We continue to closely monitor the projections of declining lake levels and are working with stakeholders throughout the Lower Basin to keep as much water in Lake Mead as we can through various storage and conservation efforts," said Fulp in a statement.

People living in Nevada and Arizona will see their water supply affected by shortages if Lake Mead's water level falls below 1,075 feet above sea level. The lake would need to drop another 80 feet from its current level for California, which has the oldest water rights to the water and which is experiencing such severe drought that the state’s economy is set to lose $2 billion, to see severe shortages. 

"It's very likely that the allocations need to be rethought," Famiglietti said. "Is it going to be a congressional thing? Is it going to be the western governors that get together or some combination? It probably has to be a top-down thing."

It’s anticipated that winter snow, and melting snowpack in the spring, which will feed the Colorado River, will keep California from a worst-case scenario. But that annual replenishment allows officials to stick with short-term, year-to-year planning instead of long-term preparation for the effects of climate change in the Southwest.

"We know about solutions that must be scaled up across our arid lands—water recycling, water banking, water pricing,” Kimery Wiltshire, executive director of Carpe Diem West, a nonprofit organization that works on the connection between climate change and water supplies, told The Desert Sun. What's less sure is whether policy makers and politicians have the political will to improve what's become a dire situation.

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