Lake Mead Low Water Levels: Overuse, Not Climate Change

In today’s news is yet another article claiming the record-low water levels in Lake Mead (a manmade water reservoir) are due to human-caused climate change. In fact, to make the problem even more sinister, the Mafia is also part of the story:

Climate change is uncovering gruesome mafia secrets in this Las Vegas lake

While it is true that recent years have seen somewhat less water available from the Colorado River basin watershed (which supplies 97% of Lake Mead’s water), this is after years of above-average water inflow from mountain snowpack. Those decadal time-scale changes are mostly the result of stronger El Nino years (more mountain snows) giving way to stronger La Nina years (less snow).

The result is record-low water levels:

Lake Mead water levels since the construction of Hoover Dam (source: NBC News)

But the real problem isn’t natural water availability. It’s water use.

The following graph shows the fundamental problem (click for full resolution). Since approximately 2000, water use by 25 million people (who like to live in a semi-desert area where the sun shines almost every day) has increased to the point that more water is now being taken out of the Lake Mead reservoir than nature can re-supply it.

This figure is from a detailed study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. As long as that blue line (water supply) stayed above the red line (water use), there was more than enough water to please everyone.

But now, excessive demand for water means Lake Mead water levels will probably continue to decline unless water use is restricted in some way. The study’s projection for the future in the above figure, which includes climate model projections, shows little future change in water supply compared to natural variability over the last century.

The real problem is that too much water is being taken out of the reservoir.

As long as the red line stays above the blue line, Lake Mead water levels will continue to fall.

But to blame this on climate change, whether natural or anthropogenic, ignores the thirsty elephant in the room.

via Roy Spencer, PhD.

August 24, 2022