Lake Mead, the lifeblood of the West, is at an all-time low.
And just this week, officials said it will fall by one-third of its current level by the end of 2023.
Inch by inch, the lake is falling. We’re seeing incredible images of sunken boats now visible. We saw the first intake pipe, built in the early 1970s to feed Las Vegas, exposed to the air, no longer able to bring water to the city. And the body in the barrel, possibly a remnant of Las Vegas’ Mob past.
But there’s more.
Rural communities are seeing electricity prices increase. And on what some might consider the bright side—hiking trails submerged for some 80 years are starting to reappear.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS 'THE GORILLA IN THE ROOM'
The atmosphere is “getting thirstier,” said Kristen Averyt, the state senior climate advisor to Gov. Steve Sisolak. “What you’re essentially doing is as the climate continues to warm, you're drying out the landscape.”
On the demand side, she said most of the Colorado River’s water is being used in agriculture for irrigation.
“Because everything’s drier, all of our crops need a lot more water, as well.”
In Southern Nevada, there isn’t much agriculture compared to the other states with water rights to the river, so that’s not something they’re concerned about. But watering lawns is.
“There's multiple things that we really need to consider in terms of water use,” Averyt said. “But climate change, it really is kind of the gorilla in the room in terms of changing the balance in terms of water and what we need.”
In the meantime, she said agriculture and farmers are changing the way they work – they’re adapting. She said she’s confident we’ll see things evolve and practice change as the drought worsens.
Across the board, there’s going to have to be some tough decisions … this is what it’s going to take for us to become more resilient and for us to really adapt to what the future holds for us.
The falling lake level was anticipated, but how fast it’s dropping is the current problem.
'IT'S TIME WE START LOOKING AT THIS ICE COLD'
For Pat Mulroy, that means she’s “very worried.”
She led the Southern Nevada Water Authority for nearly 30 years, and now she’s the senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at the UNLV Boyd School of Law.
The main driver of the lack of water is the lack of precipitation in the Upper Basin. But recently, reduced flows have been implemented at Glen Canyon Dam, as power levels are at risk. That reduces the flow down river to Lake Mead.
“I think it's time that we started looking at this pretty ice cold … there isn't a silver bullet solution. It's a mosaic. And it's going to be made up of various pieces,” Mulroy said. “Conservation, obviously, is the base of a solution. But then any solution other than that, when you start talking about augmentation, I can produce a cadre of opponents to whatever solution you want to come up with.”
Mulroy said one of the big keys in the West is desalination. She pointed to successes in Israel with these plants, and now Saudi Arabia and Singapore are looking at it as a solution.
I know this is going to come up, somebody's going to say, ‘Well, isn't that too expensive?’ I think, sitting here today as we look at Lake Mead, the question isn’t, ‘Is it too expensive? It's, ‘Can we afford to not do it? Is the price of not doing it much greater than the price of not doing it?’
However, it took 10 years to permit the Carlsbad facility in California, and last week, plans for another one in California were stopped.
Another solution she suggested was the Salton Sea.
“If you were to bring water from the coast of California or from Mexico down in the Gulf of California, bring it up into the Imperial Valley, put that ocean water in the Salton Sea, stabilize the Salton Sea at ocean level quality, build an inland de-salter in the Imperial Valley using geothermal energy owned by Berkshire Hathaway,” Mulroy said.
When she started at the Water Authority, the population was 600,000 in Southern Nevada. Since then, we’ve cut water use by 40%, she said. Water use has been restricted, most recently with turf, and now local and regional agencies are focusing on evaporative cooling. When it comes to developers and new builds, that’s more difficult.
“Who are you going to choose who gets to build and who doesn’t get to build? You’re never going to survive that in a court of law,” she said.
She also discussed the idea of moving water from the east to the west.
“Technologically, yes, there are ways of moving that water, put it in Roosevelt Reservoir and Arizona, move it that far and put it on the east side of Arizona. I mean, yes, it's possible.”
LINCOLN COUNTY POWER ALLOCATION DROPS
In the meantime, rural areas are already feeling the effects.
Hydropower has been important all over the west, said Dave Lutrell, the general manager of Lincoln County Power District, but especially in Nevada, Arizona and California. Rural areas of Nevada have a higher allocation of power from the dam to allow them to develop and proper.
Lutrell said the allocation met all of Lincoln County’s needs until 2005. Now, it fulfills 60% of their needs. So, they seek power elsewhere, and it costs – two years ago, it was $2 million, Lutrell said, and next year, it will be $3 million. Those costs would be put on residents, which “basically means everybody’s power bill has to go up about $300 a year.”
We've managed to cut costs to try and absorb those increasing power supply costs for our customers. But it’s really – how do we deal with going forward?
He said they don’t have “a lot of room left” for the lake to drop before significant cuts happen.
“One of the things that we're very excited about is we are working on a two megawatt solar project,” he said. “We're working with Senator Cortez Masto on some community directed funding for that project. So we're hoping to be able to, with projects like that, and some external funding, look for ways to offset some of that generation loss.”
LAKE LEVELS CAUSE PROBLEMS FOR BOATERS
The dropping levels have also been problematic for recreational users of the lake. Currently, there’s only one open ramp area for boaters to launch.
“When you’re out on the lake, new islands are popping up all the time,” said Alan Gegax, an outdoors expert.
“The quality of shorelines that have been saturated for years underwater” are diminishing, he said. “If you pull your boat up, it might look solid on the surface. As soon as you jump out, you’re knee deep in just muck, so it's not as suitable for boating as it once was.”
The area of Glen Canyon and areas of Lake Powell have been exposed in recent years, giving hikers new areas to explore, but that’s not the case in Lake Mead, where Gegex said it isn’t suitable land.
“It’s going to take a while for it all to dry out and be suitable for hiking in new areas. And hopefully, that never happens,” he said. “Hopefully, the lake fills back up.”
Kristen Averyt, state senior climate advisor, Office of the Governor; Patricia Mulroy, senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy, William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV; Alan Gegax, outdoors expert and organizer, Vegas Hikers; Dave Lutrell, general manager, Lincoln County Power District