“Megadrought” Takes Lake Mead to an All-Time Low

Megadrought Lake Mead

The nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, created by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, has reached record lows (at only 36% full) in the face of a severe drought sweeping the western US. The reservoir supplies water to 25 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and more. Low water levels also mean 25% less hydropower is being produced at the Hoover Dam. Watering bans are now in effect in parts of Las Vegas, and the Governor of Utah recently released an unsettling video, asking residents to literally pray for rain. And as wildfire season dawns on the west, experts worry that the devastation may blow past previous records.

FOX 13 News Utah: Governor Cox asks Utahns to pray for rain amidst drought, June 3, 2021.

Why This Matters

Drought is becoming a permanent fixture across the west, and dry conditions are moving further east each year. Not only does this create prime conditions for wildfires, but it also causes water insecurity for millions of people. Marginalized communities stand to suffer most from growing drought because they already disproportionately lack reliable access to clean water. Compounded with rising heat and failing power grids, water scarcity in the west could be life-threatening for millions of people. Drought can also take a significant toll on the post-pandemic recovering economy -- since 1980, droughts have cost the US $259 billion. Worse yet, the government will soon have no choice but to cut off the spigot for farmers in the region.

Bless the Rains

As of last week, the lake's surface dipped below the 2016 record low, falling to 1,071.56 feet above sea level. Since 2000, it has fallen 140 feet. "There's going to be a lot of pain in this drought," said Jay Lund, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of California Davis. "It'll be catastrophic for some communities and for some local industries. It'll be catastrophic for some fish species. But it’s not going to be catastrophic statewide." But North Dakota Farmer Devin Jacobson isn't so sure. He fears he'll have to abandon part of his crops, spanning 3,500 acres, which have seen less than three inches of rain this season. This is a growing worry for farmers across the west, and agriculture accounts for about 80% of California's water use.

Lund says that water restrictions will prevent catastrophe, emphasizing that California has survived droughts in the past with similar policy. The Regional Water Authority, which supplies water for 2 million residents in and around Sacramento, has now asked residents to reduce their water consumption by 10%. Governor Gavin Newsom has issued a drought emergency declaration for 41 out of 58 counties.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox has already asked citizens to use water conservatively, but the drought has now reached 90% of the state, and even he seems to be losing faith. "I've already asked all Utahns to conserve water by avoiding long showers, fixing leaky faucets, and planting water-wise landscapes. But I fear those efforts alone won't be enough to protect us," Cox said in a video posted last Thursday. "We need more rain, and we need it now. We need some divine intervention."

Experts hope that these methods can tide the populace over until the rains arrive again. However, this draught turns 22 this year and is the most prolonged dry period in 115 years of record-keeping. Some have gone so far as to call it a "permanent drought." With innovative water management techniques, states can preserve more of their water resources. Still, it's clear that the only way to truly end the drought is to put an end to catastrophic temperature rise caused by a worsening climate crisis.

USA Today: Megadrought, water shortage, global warming threatens US Southwest, June 30, 2021.