Lake Mead Shortage Averted - For Now

The drought has not been friendly to Lake Mead.

Dry winters in the Rockies have reduced snow melts into the Colorado
River, which impacts the level of Lake Mead.

Still – federal water managers say we’ve managed to skirt an official
shortage declaration for a while longer. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
says the lake remains about two feet above the emergency “trigger” line.

So how much longer can the lake sustain without forcing southern Nevada and Arizona to take major cuts to their allotment of river water? 

Dan Bunk is the river operations manager for the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation. He said the release from Lake Powell, in combination with storage and conservation programs among the water users, have kept Lake Mead above the shortage line of 1,075 feet. 

If the lake dips below that number, Southern Nevada would take a 13,000-acre-foot cut in its nearly 300,000-acre-foot annual allotment. 

A shortage has never been declared, and regional water agencies fear it could mean major economic setbacks.

For now, the lake will probably not be pushed below shortage, although there's still a small chance. 

Support comes from

"There is still about a 17 percent chance of shortage in 2019, due to the remaining hydrologic and operational uncertainty between now and August," Bunk said.

More dry winters in the Rocky and Wasatch mountains however could mean Lake Mead will eventually hit that line sooner rather than later.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies are working on a solution, but right now conservation is working - to an extent. 

“To this point through 2017, through different storage and conservation programs we’ve managed to put 1.6 million acre-feet in Lake Mead," Bunk said.

That extra water put about 20 feet of elevation in the lake - without it, the bathtub ring would have been worse and a shortage would have been declared.

Bunk warned, however,  that if the western United States returns to the conditions seen at the beginning of the drought -- which were the driest years ever recorded -- conservation efforts won't be able to keep up.

“If you’re at the lake and you see that white band around the lake, that is about 140 feet of vertical elevation that you’re looking at,” Bunk said.

He said the 140 feet translates into about 14 million acre-feet of water, which is about half the total storage capacity of the lake.

Bunk said his biggest concern is the length of the drought: 18 years and counting.

How long will the drought continue?

"Even the best hydrologists and climatologists don’t know the answer to that question," he said.

Bunk said that while some archaeological records point to past droughts lasting longer and being more severe, there are models would predict that the "drought" is the new normal in the West.


Dan Bunk, river operations manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation 

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KNPR's State of Nevada
KNPR's State of Nevada