States Plan Cuts to Boost Lake Mead Levels


As water levels continue to decline, officials have announced they are developing a voluntary water cut costing $100 million to leave more water in southern Nevada’s Lake Mead.

Nevada, Arizona, California and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will negotiate reductions in water use, as well as invoke a 2019 drought response agreement to discuss ways to prevent the lake from falling below an elevation of 1,020 feet.

As of Wednesday (Nov. 17), Lake Mead’s water level was reportedly sitting at 1,065 feet.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has issued a water shortage declaration on the Colorado River, reducing the amount of water that can withdraw from Lake Mead, starting in January 2022. The declaration also states that “should Lake Mead’s water level continue to decline, additional cuts will follow.”

“You don’t have much of a buffer left to deal with that (rapidly declining water level) if you have a bad year of runoff in the system,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, in an interview.

Reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada and Arizona models showed that Lake Mead water consumption will have to be reduced by 500,000 acre-feet annually through 2026 to stay above 1,020 feet.

“This plan builds upon the Drought Contingency Plan and other programs with our Colorado River partners that are keeping Lake Mead levels about 50 feet higher today,” said John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, in a statement. “While there are still some details to finalize, we expect this will further help protect the lake, and that’s good for Southern Nevada and our river partners.”

Officials plan to finalize the two-year agreement next month before looking to further conservation.

Lake Mead History

Completed in 1936, the Hoover Dam celebrated the 85th anniversary of its last concrete pour last year in May. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam alone contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete. Including the power plant, spillway tunnels and other equipment needed for it to operate, there are 4.36 million cubic yards of it at the structure.

Prior to its completion, Lake Mead began filling in 1934 and would eventually reach a top capacity of 1,229 feet in elevation. However, the lake is considered full when maximum water elevation reaches 1,219.6 feet. It is during these times of capacity that the lake is reported to cover 248 square miles.

The water from the lake serves a dual purpose for much of the southwest, providing Las Vegas with roughly 90% of its drinking water—while nearly one in every 10 Americans depend on the Colorado River for some of their water and irrigation purposes—and its dam (in normal years) produces 2,074 megawatts or enough electricity for 8 million people.

Regarding the reduction in capacity, however, the dam is currently producing 1,567 MW, a drop of about 25%. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron reports that for every foot of lake level decline, energy production loses about 6 MW.

Historically, the Hoover Dam has required water levels exceeding 1,050 feet to generate electricity, but engineers expecting a day in the not-so-distant future when the threshold won’t be met, have recently made turbine modifications so that some electricity can be produced with as little as 950 feet.

Because Lake Mead receives much of its water from the Colorado River, it has become a sort of drought indicator for the entire West. Currently, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 55% of the area is dealing with “extreme” or “exceptional” drought—its two most severe categories. The highest-tier drought category engulfs most of southern Nevada and adjacent Utah.

While lake water levels started to witness a decline in the year 2000, Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of southern California, partially attributes the water decline to the last 10 years of Colorado River runoff being the driest in the river’s history.

“The conditions we’re seeing this year highlight the threat of climate change and the drying trend we’re seeing on the river,” he added. “We must continue to work collaboratively as we begin longer-term discussions on how to address the river’s supply imbalance.”

According to The Washington Post, the lake hasn’t hit 1,150 feet since April 2003, and April 2014 was the last time water levels stood at 1,100 feet.

The rapid decline in recent months has prompted plans for the first-ever water shortage declaration from the federal government, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Although Aaron suspects that elevation of Lake Mead to continue to decline until November, the Bureau is expected to issue the declaration in August of this year, which is when operating conditions are set for the following year and will indicate how distribution to states and Mexico will be affected. According to Aaron, the 2022 declaration will likely be a Level 1 Shortage Condition but would still require surrounding states to implement water-saving measures.

“While we may have less water coming to Arizona from the Colorado River in 2022, Arizona's water managers and suppliers have been taking measures to prepare and will continue to work to ensure the river remains stable for generations to come,” Buschatzke said.

Earlier this year, in June, Lake Mead hit historic lows, with officials reporting that the United States’ largest reservoir by volume was at an all-time low of just 1,071.44 feet—or roughly 36% of its capacity.

Officials add at the time that while the reservoir will be at its lowest since the 1930s when the Hoover Dam was constructed, they only expect the levels to continually get worse as the area is slated to go another hot, dry summer, with many states having already issued a state of emergency.

In October, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced a $30 million investment to keep the reservoir from decreasing to critical levels.

“In Arizona, we’re committed to preserving a culture of conservation and protecting our water resources,” said Ducey in a statement at the time. “Today’s investments support that commitment. We will continue to work with community partners, tribal neighbors, other states and federal agencies to take innovative measures to secure Arizona’s water future now, and for years to come.” 


Tagged categories: Environmental Control; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; NA; North America; potable water; Power; Power; Program/Project Management; Quality Control; Water/Wastewater

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