What happens if Lake Mead dries up and the SW US runs out of water

We’re running out of water, plain and simple. This has been a glaring issue in the SW US for over 20 years now, but why is it just now becoming a problem? What would happen if theoretically Lake Mead and Lake Powell were to dry up completely?

Content warning: turn back now if you have environmental/eco anxiety, this is a heavy topic. But, learn ways to cope with eco-anxiety here.

Let’s discuss:

First, this was never an issue I was aware of until very recently when I moved to the SW US myself. Also recently, I went back to the Midwest to visit my family. I was taken aback by how lush everything looked and forgot how much normal rainfall was. Everyone in the Midwest didn’t seem to care or even know much about their water consumption. People watering plants willy nilly, watering already green grass. Meanwhile, living in the desert, I am catching my dishwater in order to water my bushes.

This is why I want to talk about this issue. It is an issue you don’t know about unless you live here.

What states are affected? Any state that relies on water from the Colorado River. So, that is Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. In Nevada and Arizona specifically, we are facing hard cuts in 2022.

Scientists agree that climate change is a key factor in this drought. For years, Colorado has seen below-average snowfall, a prime contributor to the water supply for the reservoirs. Because there is less snow to melt and less rainfall, the lakes are dropping rapidly.

Lake Mead

There are other reservoirs, but none quite like Lake Mead. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Hoover Dam, a massive structure built in the 1930s to create an everlasting water source for the West after all the springs dried up.

Lake Mead is the largest manmade reservoir in the US. It provides water to 40 million people in the US and Mexico and provides electricity for a lot of NV as well. Though, due to water shortages, less and less water can be pushed through the turbines in the dams meaning that less and less hydroelectricity is produced.

But, Lake Mead is at its lowest point since being filled up. Lake Mead is considered to be at capacity at 1,225 feet but can hold up to 1,229 feet. In 2000, the lake was at 95% capacity. It is now at 39% full at only 1,083 feet. That might not sound like a big drop, but that has been 142 feet in the last 21 years or 6-7 feet per year.

What will the cuts be?

In 2021, we already saw level 1 cuts starting in late spring. Under the Level 1 cuts, Arizona began facing the biggest reduction of about 18 percent of Arizona's overall water supply. Farmers who rely on water from the Central Arizona Project canal will be most directly affected. Nevada will see cuts of about 7% and Mexico will see cuts of about 5%. But, under tier 1 cuts, California won’t see any changes.

Again, most states are saying that households and businesses won’t see major changes, but farmers will. This blows my mind. I feel it’s much easier to rid the states of non-native, water-sucking plants that are for decoration only and instead keep this water for food production. Granted, most crops in Arizona are alfalfa (used for the beef industry) and cotton (used for clothing).

Image from Storyblocks

How are the states mitigating water cuts?

For one, Nevada has taking it upon itself to rid ornamental grass from courtyards, medians, and so forth where it doesn’t serve a purpose. This alone has saved 256,000 acre-feet of water, down from about 325,000 acre-feet just 20 years ago. There is a long way to go, but this is significant progress. For one, I think removing golf courses could be an option to save water especially as levels get drastically low.

And, as we discussed, Arizona is already cutting water supply to farmers.

But what do these cuts mean?

This means that the price of cotton will go up and harvests goes down. This means that with less alfalfa, cows will now be either in fewer numbers or be fed another crop. This could lead to beef prices increasing.

If you live in the Lower Colorado Basin, this could mean a heftier water bill or water restrictions. For example in Las Vegas, we can only water plants during certain days of the week during certain hours with the consequence is getting a ticket.

Image from Storyblocks

The future of Lake Mead and the Water in the West

The future may look bleak but we have the power to change it. Here are the facts: With the current rate of water loss, Tier 2 restrictions could be here as soon as November 2022. This means that Arizona would lose another 80,000 acre-feet and Nevada an additional 4,000. And then by July 2023, the furthest forecast in the report probably for tier 3, the lake could drop to 1,038 feet, at which point California would take its first cut of 200,000 acre-feet.

But what if it keeps dropping? At 950 feet, the dam’s turbines could no longer turn, meaning no hydroelectricity could be produced. At 895 feet, its waters could no longer leave the reservoir — a low point referred to as “a deadpool.” If Lake Mead were to reach just 895 feet, no one would get any water from the reservoir except for NV. That means Arizona, California, and Mexico would have to find another water source. That is just 188 feet. Sure, it took 21 years to drop 142 feet, but the drought conditions are worsening. Due to increased temperatures alone, each year you can expect the lake to drop 6 feet just from evaporation.

Since water would no longer flow at 895 feet of water left in the lake, there may have to be another pipe installed to get the remaining water out for the residents of Nevada.

If water were to reach this low, I would suspect that any water usage that is not essential to life would be cut off. This means golf courses, pools, water parks, car washes, fountains, and so forth. Water will become very expensive. I suspect many people will flee the region should this happen.

This also means that California would lose a lot of its power since the dam would quit producing hydroelectricity.

This is everyone’s problem

Let’s say the lake was to theoretically run dry or deadpool, then what? The US would lose a large portion of its agriculture. We already discussed how Arizona produces food for cattle, so your beef prices will increase. California is a huge producer of human food in the US. Everything from fruits to avocados to nuts, you can thank California for. This means you can also kiss your low strawberry prices goodbye should the lake cease to flow.

Other states might have to pick up the slack, meaning farmland traditionally dedicated to growing animal feed of corn, soy, and wheat, some might have to be given up to produce human food like fruits and vegetables.

I’m willing to bet that the import of water, mostly in plastic bottles, would skyrocket. This would lead to higher plastic production and consumption.

This also means that many people would leave the SW and move elsewhere causing, once again, the housing market to rise and the inflation of other goods.

What can we do?

As individuals, especially those who live in the desert, there is a lot we can do: reduce your personal water usage, catch your gray water to water your plants, replace your grass yard with rocks, support local farmers since they are losing water cuts first and they will then lose their income, avoid car washes, avoid water parks, report any water “fraud,” and write! Write to golf courses demanding they cut their water usage. Write to your city, your state demanding that corporations face the same cuts as we are facing and demand they act on climate change policy.

What if you don’t live in the desert, though? Still, reduce your water usage. After all, if we run out here, we’re going to be relying on your water sources next. Reduce or completely cut out red meat or meat in general as a lot of the crops grown go to feeding the animals which require a whole lot more food than a human. But, most importantly, write and call your elected officials. You can help demand climate change action now since climate change is a huge contributor to what we are facing out here.

I know, it seems scary, and honestly, I’m terrified. But, there is still hope. Things aren’t dire yet, just very serious. We can turn this around by demanding change. This is a prime example in how our small, individual actions do make a difference, but ultimately, this needs governmental and societal change in order to be completely resolved. Let’s keep fighting for our future and for clean water.

Remember that your small actions DO have a big impact in the long run.


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My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...