Water Knives in the Near Future — 16 Year Drought Brings Lake Mead To New Record Low

It’s been ridiculously hot along the unstoppable shrinking shoreline at Lake Mead. Over the past four days, highs have peaked at a scorching 109 to 111 F (42 to 44 C). Similar heat blasted all up and down the Colorado River Basin, squeezing moisture out of a key water supply for 25 million people in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

(NASA predicts that 20-30 year droughts in the US West will become 80 percent more likely due to human-forced warming. For Lake Mead, the reality of mega-drought appears to already be settling in.)

But these record hot days are just the most recent of many for the river and its water. For over the past 16 years the Colorado River has been assailed by drought. A new kind of mega-drought that has almost certainly been spurred by a human-forced warming of the world. A condition of endemic drying that will likely continue to worsen for the foreseeable future.

Lake Mead Approaching Mandatory Rationing Levels

1072.24 feet — that’s the water level for Lake Mead as of June 21, 2016. It’s about 3 feet below the 1075 mark breached for the first time in the reservoir’s history last year. And if Lake Mead remains below that line by the end of this year, it will mean mandatory cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s water supply.

That could happen either this year (2016) or next (2017) and will almost certainly happen by 2018. In fact, the US Bureau of Reclamation predicts a 64 percent likelihood that Lake Mead will not only remain below the 1075 foot level by 2019, but that it will plunge to as low as 1025 feet at that time.

Lake Mead Water Levels

(Lake Mead may average near or below the 1075 line requiring mandatory cuts in water supplies to Arizona and Nevada this year. Image source: Lake Mead Water Level.)

This level is only 125 feet above Lake Mead’s dead pool line of 900 feet. And hitting such a low water level would result in mandatory water cuts all up and down the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Mead supplies water to 25 million people in Nevada, Arizona, and California. 19 million of these people reside in California alone. And according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, California retains senior rights to the river’s water supply. What this means is that when there’s a shortage, Nevada and Arizona have to take the first hits. And that’s bad news for the six million people and related industries supported by the river in this region. It means that if the 16 year drought along the Colorado River basin continues — and that will likely be the case due to impacts related to human-caused climate change — then water rationing is almost certain to take effect in Arizona and Nevada over the next few years.

Southwest Becoming Drier

(Weather systems that bring rain to the US Southwest are becoming more rare. Scientific studies indicate that this condition is caused by human forced climate change and will continue to worsen this Century if fossil fuel burning and human based carbon emissions do not halt soon. Image source: Climate Central.)

If the climate change driven drought continues and Bureau of Reclamation forecasts are correct, then hitting 1025 feet at Lake Mead by 2019 to 2022 will result in The Department of the Interior stepping in to take control of Lake Mead’s water management. At that point, all bets are off even for California — which would likely then see a 10 percent reduction in the water provided to it by Lake Mead.

Water Knives in the Hothouse Sun

Scientific studies indicate that factors related to human-caused climate change prevent weather systems bearing precipitation from reaching the US West Coast. This problem is particularly acute for the Southwest, where the most intense drying is expected to occur. In addition, added heat — like the record to near record high temperatures experienced across the Southwest over the past few days — results in greatly increased rates of evaporation. So what rain does fall doesn’t stay in rivers or in the soil as long.

Drought Animation NASA

(If you thought the current drought was bad, then this animation will knock your socks off. Loss of soil moisture for the US is ridiculously extreme under business as usual fossil fuel burning in this NASA projection.)

As you can see in the NASA soil moisture prediction measure above, this added heat due to climate change is expected to make currently bad drought conditions absolutely terrible over the coming decades. NASA notes that reductions in fossil fuel emissions help to blunt the intensity of the coming droughts, but that worsening drought conditions will still occur. Considering the current state of Lake Mead and the Colorado River basin, we are likely to see worsening water cuts to communities across the Southwest as climate change related heat and drought conditions worsen.



US Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Mead Water Data

Climate Central

Lake Mead Water Level

What Lake Mead’s Record Low Means For California

Lake Mead Helps Supply Water to 25 Million People — And it Just Hit a Record Low

The Water Knife

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Dishonest Donald Denies The Ongoing California Drought as Lake Mead Hits New All-Time Record Low

We now find that under the current amount of warming, the probability of a severe drought year has approximately doubled. — Park Williams, assistant research professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute

There is no California Drought. — Donald Trump

The drought is not over. — Association of California Water Agencies


An understanding of basic reality. Accepting that reality as true. And responding to that reality in a mature, adult manner. One would think that these qualities would serve as the given assumed prerequisites necessary for someone to serve as President of the United States. But in these most basic of qualifications for sanity, honesty and much less for serving as any kind of leader of worth and effectiveness, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is both sorely and entirely lacking.

For contrary to the lack-reality talk-talk of the republican party’s most recent great embarrassment, an estimated 34 million of California’s 38.8 million population still suffered under drought conditions as of Thursday last week. This figure, provided by the US Drought Monitor, marked the most recent extension of a drought that has lasted since 2013 in a state that in the entire period of 2007 through 2016 has only experienced two drought-free years. One year of which — 2015 — was the driest in all of the state’s long history. A set of facts that anyone concerned with the health of this country, much less someone running for the position of the highest office in the land, should be intimately familiar with.

California Drought

(According to the US Drought Monitor, 86 percent of California is now suffering under drought conditions. Conditions that have dominated the state since 2013 and that during 2015 inflicted the most intensely dry conditions California has ever experienced. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)

Climate change is the primary driver of the extreme southwestern drying which has had such a severe impact on California. As the Arctic has warmed, the Jet Stream has shifted northward taking with it a procession of moisture-bearing weather systems. The result is that the probability of extreme drought in the region has at least doubled when compared to the middle 20th Century.

Though strong El Ninos typically bring increased levels of rainfall to California, this year’s powerful event failed to provide even normal rainfall over more than half of the state. This failure of rains during a year when above average precipitation would be expected is but one more blow in a long, long series. But worse is likely still to come as a La Nina — a condition traditionally associated with dry weather in California — is on the way. And further on down the pipe, more warming due to the human burning of fossil fuels that Trump supports means that drought conditions will only continue to intensify unless a miraculous effort is somehow undertaken. Under these stark conditions, many observers are now wondering if the California drought will ever come to an end.

Lake Mead Hits New Record Low

Upstream along the Colorado River, there’s still more to be concerned about. For a waterway that 25 million people depend upon is now entering its 16th year of drought. The river feeds one of the US’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead. But the giant, man-made lake keeps hitting record low levels year after year. A great white ring shows the previous high water mark from decades past over the now greatly shrunken reserve. Water officials are today relegated to making increasingly dubious assurances that the reservoir will be able to meet needs next year (2017) or maybe the following. But the future on into the early 2020s is ever less certain.

Lake Mead shrinkage

(NASA Earth Observatory shows the extraordinary shrinkage of Lake Mead from 2000 through 2015. Also note the very rapid growth of water-hungry Las Vegas directly to the west of the imperiled reservoir. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

As of last week, Lake Mead’s water levels had fallen below 1074 feet above sea level. This represents just 37 percent of the reservoir’s capacity. If levels remain below 1075 feet through to January 1, a number of required water restrictions will ripple through the Colorado River system forcing states like Arizona, Nevada and California to endure cutbacks. It’s a situation that may not happen this year, but one that grows more and more likely each following year as the Colorado River continues to dry out.

In total, more than 25 million people depend upon Lake Mead’s water. And the drought along the Colorado River that is shrinking the lake combines with endemic drying in California to create a context of ongoing and worsening water resource stress over the US Southwest. A drying driven on by the human-forced warming of our world and by the very fossil fuel burning that Trump is preparing to double down on should he be elected President.

It’s a worsening reality that will call for hard choices and bold efforts if the communities of this threatened US region are to survive and prosper. A set of choices requiring a firm grasp of the tough new realities now settling in and a willingness to chose renewable energy systems that will not worsen water stress and that will not continue to enflame an already tough climate situation.

But the presumptive leader of the republican party brazenly spouts ignorance of even a simpleton’s understanding of the powerful and dangerous climate forces now at work. A bald lack of basic knowledge that would put tens of millions throughout the US Southwest at risk due to what is sure to be a devastating resource mismanagement, an ill-timed return to dangerous fuels, and an utter lack of climate disaster preparedness should Trump be elected. A serious deficiency in the kinds of urgently needed national leadership skills in the current day coupled with a denial of simple realities that should cause pretty much everyone to question whether the man possesses even the most rudimentary qualifications for serving as President of the United States.


United States Drought Monitor

Lake Mead Drops to Record Low

Contribution of Anthropogenic Warming to California Drought

Watch Lake Mead Dramatically Shrink

Association of California Water Agencies

Hat Tip to Genomik

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Century of Water Shortage Ahead? Lake Mead Drops Below Rationing Line For First Time in Its History.

1075 feet. That’s the water level Lake Mead must stay above before mandatory multi-state water rationing goes into effect. A level just 25 feet above the highest intake pipe used to supply cities across the Desert Southwest. Last night water levels at the key national water storage facility fell below that hard line to 1074.99 feet — a record low never before seen in all of its history.

lake meade water levels

(Lake Meade water levels hit below the 1075 hard line yesterday, the lowest level ever recorded. Image source: Lake Mead Water Data.)

If water levels remain below the 1075 foot mark through January of 2016, then a multi-state rationing will go into effect (with most acute impacts for Arizona and Nevada). A rationing that will have serious consequences for desert cities across the Southwest, cities like Las Vegas which rely on Lake Mead for so much of their water.

Despite Lake Mead hitting the 1075 hard line, it appears that rationing may be forestalled through 2016. It’s a silver lining of all the severe summer storms that have rolled through the Colorado River Basin this spring and summer — pumping up water flows to Lake Mead and Lake Powell. A flush of much needed moisture that will, hopefully, prevent water rationing from going into effect during 2016. But prospects for the future, despite this temporary respite, are starting to look a bit grim.

Risk of Future Megadrought

The trend set in place by a human-forced warming of the Desert Southwest has resulted in an increasing number of dry years. The added heat forces water to evaporate more rapidly. So even when it does rain an average amount, moisture levels still fall. The result is not only an increase in single year droughts, but an increased risk of decadal droughts (called megadroughts).

As the years progress and more of the impacts of human-forced global warming become apparent, the drought impacts and severe drought risks are only expected to rise. For according to a recent Cornell University report (2014) the chance of a 10 year drought for the US Southwest under a moderate warming scenario (RCP 4.5) is 50% this century (greater for states like Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada — see graphic below). The chances of a 30 year drought range from 20-50 percent depending on the severity of the human greenhouse gas emission.

Megadrought risk

(Risk of an individual State experiencing a 10 year or longer drought as a result of global warming due to human fossil fuel emissions over the course of the next century. Note that Lake Meade watershed states show the highest risk for periods of terrible drying. Image source: Southwest May Face Megadrought this Century.)

Toby Ault, lead author of last year’s Cornell Paper noted:

“For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions.”

For reference, the current historic California drought is, so far, a four-year affair. So, as difficult and damaging as that drought has been, a 10 year or a thirty year drought may be seem comparatively unimaginable by today’s standards. In other words, though it’s been rather dry for the U.S. West over the past 15 years, an impact likely already worsened by human-caused climate change, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Early Warning and A Call For Necessary Action

In addition to increasing drying and severe drought risks, growing cities throughout the U.S. West have put greater and greater strains on water stores like Lake Mead. As a result of the combined human-forced drought and increased water consumption, levels at Lake Mead have been dropping since 1999. Back then, water levels averaged around 1200 feet. And since that time we’ve seen an average 8 foot drop each year.

It’s a trend that, unless it changes, will almost certainly mean water rationing in 2017, 2018 or 2019, if not 2016.  Water resource officials are notably concerned. Water-policy manager Drew Beckwith of Western Resource Advocates noted in USA TODAY:

“This is the check-engine light. It really does (make critical) the fact that we have to start changing.”

And that’s absolutely true. We need to change how we manage and use water in the US Southwest and we need to do absolutely everything we can to prevent as much future warming as possible to reduce the risk and intensity of the future megadroughts that are a likely upshot of human-forced warming. The crossing of the 1075 line for Lake Mead yesterday should thus be viewed as a climate change shot across the bow. If we want to husband our resources wisely, we need to look both toward conservation and toward making certain conditions do not spiral beyond even the ability of responsible resource management to make a difference. That’s the basic lesson of climate change — there are simply some conditions that are impossible to adapt to. And the goal of every rational person should be to do everything possible to prevent and reduce the intensity of those conditions. The water security of the U.S. Southwest depends on it.


Lake Mead Water Data

Lake Mead Sinks to Record Low Risking Water Shortage

Water Level in Lake Mead Drops to Warning Mark

Southwest May Face Megadrought This Century

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

%d bloggers like this: