Sunday, June 05, 2016
Dwindling Lake Mead Should be a Wake Up Call to Southwest
Lake Mead reached an all-time low in May, falling below the previous record set in June 2015.
Why does this matter?
Well, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, in terms of water capacity.
Most critically, Lake Mead provides water to the states of Arizona, Nevada and California, as well as Mexico, serving nearly 20 million people.
Lake Mead was established in 1936. At the time, the populations of the cities it serviced were rather meager.
In 1940, Phoenix had a population of just 65,414 people.
In 1940, the population of Las Vegas was just 8,422, and Clark County had only 16,414 residents.
There are whole lot more people living in those cities today.
According to the Census Bureau's 2015 population estimates, Phoenix had a population of 1,445,632, and the Valley had 4,574,351 total residents, making it the 12th largest metropolitan area in the nation by population.
As of the 2015, Las Vegas had a population of 628,711, and the larger metropolitan area had 2,147,641 residents.
Los Angeles County had a population of 2,785,643 in 1940, but it had reached an estimated 10,170,292 by 2015.
The point is, the populations of the regions served by Lake Mead have grown exponentially since the reservoir was created. Meanwhile, the lake's water level has declined precipitously.
Lake Mead receives the majority of its water from snow melt in the Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah Rocky Mountains, via the Colorado River.
However, flows have decreased during 16 years of drought.
In fact, the lake has not reached full capacity since 1983, due to a combination of drought and increased water demand, and is now only about 37 percent full.
As a result, there are valid concerns that the federal government will declare a shortage in 2018, which would trigger cutbacks in the amount of water flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada.
Lake Mead fell below 1,074 feet for the first time on May 31, 2016 and continues to drop.
If the lake’s level is projected to be below 1,075 feet at the start of next year, the Interior Department will declare a shortage.
California, which holds the most privileged water rights from the Colorado River, would be the last to face reductions. The earliest and most significant cutbacks would be felt by Arizona and Nevada.
The three states will eventually need to reach an agreement on sharing in the cutbacks to prevent an even more severe shortage.
The United States and Mexico also need to negotiate a new agreement on water sharing from the Colorado River.
A water shortage in the region is a really big deal since Lake Mead, nearby Lake Powell and the Colorado River provide at least part of the drinking water supply to nearly 40 million people in the western United States.
The water system also allows for agriculture and energy production.
The current drought and the bleak status of Lake Mead should be of great concern to everyone in Arizona, Nevada, and the entire desert Southwest. This problem is not going away; it will only worsen. It will affect migration, business and property values.
Population growth and heavy demand for water have run head on into a dwindling Rocky Mountain snowpack and a rapidly changing climate.
Supply and demand are divergent and incompatible.
Neither the government or scientists can magically create more supply; they can’t control the weather. All they can do is attempt to lessen demand.
But that is an enormous, perhaps impossible, challenge in the Southwest, which scientists say has millions more inhabitants than nature intended, or for which it can provide.
Eventually, millions of residents, as well as the businesses that serve and support them, may be confronted with an inability to continue living in the arid, parched desert of the American Southwest.
This isn't farfetched or extremist.
A 2008 paper in Water Resources Research stated that at current usage allocation and projected climate trends, a 50% chance exists that live storage in Lakes Mead and Powell will be gone by 2021.
That’s just five short years from now.