Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s largest reservoir, is facing an alarming future due to the ongoing drought conditions and rise of temperature.
A group of water managers projected the elevation on Jan. 1 for the next two years by measuring the annual inflows and outflows from northwestern Wyoming to southwestern New Mexico. The results are upsetting.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the basin, projected that Lake Mead would fall below the 1,075 threshold by a narrow margin of 1,074.31 feet on Dec. 31, 2017. Another bureau stated that the chance that the lake would hit that level is 48%. The same report shows a 60% possibility to suffer a shortage in 2019, 61% in 2020 and 56% in 2021.
Neither of the bureaus took into account the attempts of water conservation that some states in the lower part of the river basin are promoting, which might counterbalance the fact that 84 percent of California’s water suppliers chose zero conservation target after an average wet winter in the northern half of the state.
Under current policy, farmers, tribes and cities in the southern part of the basin will suffer a “shortage” and require to reduce water consumption, if the projected elevation falls below 1,075 feet on Jan. 1, which happened last month for the first time since the Hoover Dam was completed and Lake Mead was filled eighty years ago.
Water managers are expecting that the snowpack, our single most important backup reservoir, will unexpectedly rise year over year, helping us balance the structural deficit on the river— where there is more demand than supply. However, the snowpack’s weather is also getting warmer, and reliable snow areas now behave as lower elevation zones, which means less snowpack storage and faster uncaptured runoff.
While the forecast of Lake Mead’s level might seem unpredictable, what the reports indicate is that there will be shortage years in the future, and we must be prepared.
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*We were inspired by William Yardley’s article: “The forecast for Lake Mead: Hot and dry with plenty of anxiety”