Lake Mead’s water level has dropped to 1,050 feet, threatening more outages

If the US Bureau of Reclamation determines in its August report that the lake level will be at or below this height in January 2023, the Southwest will move to a second level of unprecedented water cut that will reduce the amount of Colorado River water that can be used by cities industry and tribal water users.

As of Tuesday, the level of Lake Mead was about 1,049 feet above sea level.

Lake Meadwhich provides water to about 25 million people in Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico, and is currently operating in Level 1 deficiencywhich started in January. Under Tier 1 conditions, the southwestern states saw mandatory cuts in the water they could take in from the Colorado River. These cuts affected agriculture in the first place.

In the case of the most significant level 2 shortfall, Arizona will move from the current 18% reduction to 21%, and Nevada will move from 7% to 8%. Mexico will also see a 7% reduction in its waters.

Additional reductions – each layer with an increasing impact on agriculture and municipal water use – are expected if Lake Mead continues to decline. And if officials expect the level to be below 1,045 feet by January, California will also see a mandatory 5% cut from what they can draw from the Colorado River.

“This shows how bad the situation really is,” John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, told CNN. “The climate change risks we face in the Colorado River Basin right now have never been greater.”

The forecast is accurate, said Patti Aaron, a public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, as water officials also have to account for dwindling water levels in Lake Powell, adjacent to Mead, the country’s second largest reservoir.

The agency recently announced Unprecedented emergency steps to Helps increase water levels in Lake Powellwhich involves releasing more water from smaller reservoirs upstream on the Colorado River into Powell, while holding back the water in Lake Powell itself, rather than sending the water downstream into Lake Mead.

Without these emergency steps, the bureau estimated there is a roughly 25% chance that the Glen Canyon Dam, which is powered by Lake Powell, will stop producing by the end of this year. The dam generates power for up to 5.8 million homes and businesses in seven states.

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“Under the 2022 operational parameters, the Glen Canyon Dam was supposed to release 7.48 million acres of water into Lake Mead,” Aaron told CNN. “It has been decided to reduce this release to 7 million acres to help protect Lake Powell from reaching critical levels.”

Given these recent, unprecedented measures, she said, “it is impossible to say exactly what will happen between now and August,” when the Lake Med report is released.

Water authorities in all affected states as well as the federal government are already preparing for what’s to come.

“In preparation for this, we continue to work with stakeholders, tribes, partners and water districts to help them understand how much of a decline there may be in their connectivity,” Aaron said. “We also fund conservation actions and activities across [Colorado River] pelvis.”

With the climate changing rapidly and drought continuing, Flick said the West should prepare for more shortages and take proactive action.

“Whatever we do by moving the water from one tank to another tank, it’s just a dressing, what we really need is to reduce the water use in the aquarium dramatically,” he said. “The crux of the problem is that those reservoirs are empty because we’re using more water than the river can provide. We have to change that.”