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Water Level At Lake Mead, The Country's Largest Reservoir, Is At Historic Low09:42Download

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Low water levels are visible at Lake Mead on May 13, 2015 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. As severe drought grips parts of the Western United States, Lake Mead, which was once the largest reservoir in the nation, has seen its surface elevation drop below 1,080 feet above sea level, its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
Low water levels are visible at Lake Mead on May 13, 2015 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. As severe drought grips parts of the Western United States, Lake Mead, which was once the largest reservoir in the nation, has seen its surface elevation drop below 1,080 feet above sea level, its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The water level at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is the lowest it's ever been.

The man-made lake, which straddles the Nevada-Arizona border and provides water to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico, is now only about 37 percent full, and the water level is expected to keep dropping over the next month or so.

If the water level at Lake Mead doesn't rise above a certain threshold again by the end of the year, it would trigger a water shortage declaration that could have major consequences for parts of the West.

Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti talks with Dave White at Arizona State University about why the lake is so low, and what happens if the level falls low enough to trigger mandatory water restrictions.

Interview Highlights: Dave White

On Lake Mead’s regional significance

"Lake Mead along with Lake Powell, the two major storage reservoirs on the Colorado River system, are absolutely essential to the social, economic and environmental vitality for the entire western United States. Together, the reservoirs and the Colorado river system provide at least part of the drinking water supply to nearly 40 million people in the western United States, produce millions of megawatt hours of energy production, provide habitat for threatened and endangered species and produce a tremendous agricultural crop particularly during the winter months."

On reasons for Lake Mead’s low water level

"Major contributing factors right now are a significant drought that has lasted more than a decade and a half in the western United States. Your listeners may be aware of the very acute and severe drought that California has faced over the last four years. Well, the region at large has been in and out of drought conditions for the last 16 years. The level of the reservoirs have been declining over that time.

The levels may also be declining because of the increased demand and the deficit between our annual demands and our available supplies. And finally we have the signal of climate change which is causing increased temperature and decreased surface water supply into the system. So, these three factors are the explanation for the lake levels at this time."

"Lake Mead along with Lake Powell, the two major storage reservoirs on the Colorado River system, are absolutely essential to the social, economic and environmental vitality for the entire western United States."

Dave White

On how municipal users would be affected if restrictions are put in place

"There are different critical thresholds in terms of elevation above sea level that are identified starting with 1,075 feet. But as those lake levels continue to drop, the cuts to the state in Arizona would affect not only the agricultural users, but municipal and industrial users.

Now, fortunately, the states are not waiting around for a declaration to occur. the leaders of the states of Arizona, Nevada and California are involved in deliberations right now and discussions to enact voluntary curtailments in advance of any federal government declaration to ensure we can serve water in the lower basin and maintain those lake levels above the critical thresholds. So, it's this voluntary leadership, and the states deserve credit for engaging in these dialogues ahead of the crisis point."

On Lake Mead’s future

"Climate change presents a significant challenge to the long-term water sustainability in our region. Fortunately we have a variety of strategies that allow us to adapt to that changing climate. These include managing demand through smart, conservation-based incentives, technology and pricing. Expanding reuse and recycling of reclaimed water, exploring the possibilities of desalinization, fostering more innovative and adaptive water institutions and focusing our water decision making on maximizing the economic and quality of life benefits of every gallon of water invested.

It will take all of these solutions in concert to be able to sustain the vitality of the region in the face of not only our existing short-term challenges but the long-term challenges associated with impacts of global climate change."

Guest

  • Dave White, professor at the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, director of the university's Decision Center for a Desert City.

This segment aired on May 31, 2016.

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