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Nevada's Lake Mead Is at Its Lowest Level Ever — and Federal Authorities Say It's Going to Get Worse

Forty million people rely on the reservoir for water and the Hoover Dam supplies eight million people with power.

by VICE News
Apr 27 2015, 8:55pm

Photo by John Locher/AP

VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.

California's record-breaking drought — the worst in over a thousand years — has captured headlines. But across the western United States, high temperatures and meager amounts of snowfall are causing havoc. 

And it might be the sign of a new normal in the West.

Water levels in Nevada's Lake Mead, which powers the Hoover Dam and supplies water and power to tens of millions, dropped to historic lows this morning. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation, which built and manages hundreds of dams in the West, water levels at Lake Mead dipped to 1,080.07 feet, just below last August's record of 1,080.19 feet.

According to Reuters, the Bureau projects that water levels will continue to fall through at least the end of May, when it says levels could drop to 1,073 feet — far below the record high of 1,206 feet reached in the 1980s.

Melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains flows into the Colorado River, which in turn feeds Lake Mead. In 2013, according to Reuters, Rocky Mountain meltwater was at 47 percent of normal levels.

Forty million people in Nevada, Arizona, Southern California, and Mexico rely on Lake Mead for water. And the the Hoover Dam provides eight million people with power. 

As water levels diminish, so too does electrical output.

The Bureau of Reclamation has installed new, more efficient turbines at the dam, Rose Davis, a spokesperson with the bureau's Lower Colorado region, told VICE News. But even with those upgrades, the dam's capacity to generate electricity has dropped by 23 percent since 2000.

The Hoover Dam was built in 1931 during an especially wet period for the West, according to the National Climatic Data Center. And a recent study predicts that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced dramatically, the region could experience persistent drought in the later half of the 21st century that is even worse than that of a millennium ago, when the Anasazi abandoned their settlements in the Southwest. 

"We're very concerned about our capability to serve our customers," Davis told VICE News. "We do hope the drought stops and that there are better snowpack years coming."

Related: California's governor faces criticism over drought-relief policies