From Bad to Worse: Lake Mead Expected to Hit New Historic Low

Decreased snow melt limits water levels in one of the west’s most vital reservoirs.

Alicia Burtner / U.S. Geological Survey

Decreased snow melt limits water levels in one of the west’s most vital reservoirs.

Sometime overnight Sunday, Lake Mead, the vast reservoir behind Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, was projected to have hit a new historic low as drought continues to throttle the Colorado River system.

When we reported here on Mead last August, the lake had hit a modern-day low of 1,080.19 feet elevation above sea level. On Friday morning, the water level was at 1,080.47 feet, with Hoover Dam releasing water downstream in the neighborhood of 18,000 cubic feet per second. So the new record could have been set while we slept. You can see for yourself here.

“The last time Lake Mead was this low was May 1937, the same month as the Hindenburg explosion,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Thursday. “The reservoir then was filling for the first time behind the new Hoover Dam.”

Lake Mead filling behind the  upstream face ofHoover Dam during it's construction in 1935.

Bureau of Reclamation / U.S. Department of the Interior

Lake Mead filling behind the upstream face ofHoover Dam during it's construction in 1935.

The Colorado River is being stressed from one end to the other, with sub-par snowpack in the upper basin states and massive, game-changing drought on the lower end in California.

“When we take a look a snowpack, the vast majority of areas started off poorly and went downhill from there,” said Randy Julander, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Salt Lake City. “People ask about these current storms. Every drop counts and we count every drop. But it’s a case of too little too late.”

Currently, the Colorado River is running into Lake Powell, the river system’s upstream reservoir, at about 45 percent of its historic average, Julander told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Almost all of that water comes from snowmelt in the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Remaining snowpack in Colorado and Wyoming is in the 40-to-70 percent of average range, while Utah is in the zero-to-30 percent range.

“That’s ugly with a capital UG,” said Julander.

Last week’s reports had the Colorado River flowing at 63 percent of average for this time of year at the Colorado-Utah state line. Lake Powell was 45 percent full, or about 64 percent average for the date.

Still, under the operating agreements between upper and lower basin states, Lake Powell will be required to release 8.2 million to 9 million acre feet of water downstream to Lake Mead. But, even at that, the lower lake could fall to an elevation of 1,075 feet or below, perhaps in June, at which point the U.S. secretary of the interior could declare a water shortage on the river.

The first-time ever declaration could suspend or alter “the Law of the River,” the infinitely complex and arcane set of rules that govern the river’s use, starting with the Colorado River Compact of 1922, and changed by many agreements, lawsuits and rulings since, including acts of Congress and a Supreme Court decree.

Water planners have known for some time that the status quo isn’t likely to hold. Denver Water is among the large utilities soliciting innovative conservation proposals, first from the lower basin states. California Gov. Jerry Brown in recent weeks ordered a 25 percent reduction in municipal water usage in his state.

Speaking of West-wide conditions, Julander told The Review-Journal, “There just isn’t any snowpack to melt. The scientific term is ‘diddly squat.’”

Lake Mead daily water level projections (2015)

Lake Mead daily water level projections (2015)

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