Lake Mead’s bathtub ring is growing while the water level keeps dropping. In May, the lake level was down to an elevation of 1,087 feet, the 10th-lowest monthly reading since the 1930s, when the lake was filled.
Lake Mead is full when the water level hits 1,219 feet in elevation. Federal rules mandate cuts in water use when the lake surface drops to 1,075 feet. It’s considered a “dead pool” when it falls to 895 feet. Here are the elevations from May for the past 15 years:
Year — Elevation
2000 — 1,207
2001 — 1,187
2002 — 1,162
2003 — 1,144
2004 — 1,129
2005 — 1,141
2006 — 1,131
2007 — 1,115
2008 — 1,107
2009 — 1,096
2010 — 1,095
2011 — 1,097
2012 — 1,119
2013 — 1,108
2014 — 1,087
About 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from Lake Mead, which is fed by the drought-stricken Colorado River. If the lake drops another 12 feet, federal rules will kick in to cut water use, something that could happen within a year or so.
Nevada is the driest state in the nation thanks to a 14-year drought. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has done a good job preparing, but there is still more to be done.
Water originally was apportioned in the 1920s when Las Vegas was a small town. A readjustment is long overdue. But even without the pressure of the drought, the Law of the River, as it’s called, is complex and negotiations are difficult. There are seven states, the federal government and a series of water districts involved. Environmental and advocacy groups also play key roles. There is truth in the old adage that in the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.
Takeaway: Negotiations are always good, but this is a long-term discussion. With the drought, there’s little room for Las Vegas to negotiate. We need and deserve more water.
Southern Nevada has essentially multiplied the water supply by reducing the amount of grass in the region and cutting outdoor use. Still, it can save more by reducing indoor use. And not just Nevada. This is a regional issue, and the discussion should include farming. The river is used to irrigate crops that use significant amounts of water for little return, such as alfalfa. That should be reconsidered.
Takeaway: As important as conservation is, it’s not a magic bullet; you can’t conserve what you don’t have.
Supply and demand
Demand is increasing as the river basin’s water dwindles. There simply isn’t the water to support the population. Almost 40 million people depend on the river, and it irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland. The Bureau of Reclamation, which runs dams on the river, reports that it already is overdrawn.
Takeaway: With population growth and the drought, there’s a need for more water.
Desalination plants have been proposed in exchange for keeping California’s share of the river. That’s a fine idea, but if the river is drying up, that won’t help much. Southern Nevada has proposed building a pipeline to rural parts of the state to bring water to the metropolitan area. Other states are looking at their own options, all of which have run into controversy over cost and environmental impacts.
Takeaway: The question is how Nevada and the West get more water and at what cost.
Water should be a top priority this election year, and candidates should be pressed to address the issue. Southern Nevada drives the economy, and the economy needs water. SNWA’s proposal to build a pipeline has run into opposition, and opponents should propose a better solution before condemning it.
Takeaway: Water has fueled growth, and without more water, Nevada and the West will shrivel. Politicians can’t put this issue off.