The United States’ Largest Reservoir Drops to Historic Lows Amid Drought

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., provides stark visual evidence of the western United States' ongoing drought, as the waterline drops to a historic low.

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In the 1930s, the construction of Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, the single largest reservoir in the United States. It supplies millions of people with water across the country's Southwest, including in states such as Arizona, Nevada and California.

Now, however, as the western U.S. continues to suffer through one of the worst droughts on record, the water level of Lake Mead has reached a historic low. Currently, the waterline stands at the same level as when the lake was first filled in the 1930s, putting the reservoir at about 39 percent capacity.

“Right now the situation with Lake Mead is that we've hit historic low water levels. It's a very serious situation for the millions of people that rely on the lower Colorado River from here and including our neighbors to New Mexico who get water from the Colorado River,” explained Rose Davis, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

She pointed out that even if next year brings more rain, the water level will still be a lot lower than it should be.

“This is 15 years of historic drought. We're looking at possibly a normal year for 2015, but one normal year isn't going to catch us up. This year alone, the elevation dropped 20 feet and we had the lowest release into Lake Mead from Lake Powell that we've ever had in its history,” Davis said.

A quick look at Lake Mead, even by a tourist, reveals the severity of the situation. The cool water provides of a welcome relief to millions of tourists every year who come to swim, sunbathe and jet ski. But now, even as people continue to enjoy themselves, there's no way to miss the dramatic sight of falling water levels. The change in color between the rocks along the lake's edges shows with stunning clarity just how far the waterline has fallen.

“I'm concerned for the water, you know? Maybe it's forcing us as a society to watch our water use better and even in good years, hopefully we'll watch it in the future and safeguard something as treasured as water anyway,” said Mark Lillibridge, a tourist who'd come to see Hoover Dam with his family. He later admitted to Reuters that his whole family was shocked at how far the waterline had dropped.

Still, Lake Mead continues to supply water to millions of customers throughout the area. One of its biggest consumers is the nearby city of Las Vegas, which gets most of its water from Lake Mead. Las Vegas, which is famous for its swirling fountains and dazzling light displays, also draws a lot of its electricity from the Hoover Dam.

“As far as the distribution of water in Nevada and within Las Vegas, if the lake continues to drop, where Nevada would end up taking less water, they would have to decide where they were going to conserve that water and where they were going to cut back. That could be any number of things; raising water rates, cutting back on the fountains, any number of things,” Davis said.

Ultimately, she cautioned that if the drought continues, water shortages will become inevitable. She described the current drought as 15 years in duration, but added that scientific studies using tree rings have shown droughts that lasted as long as 50 years. The only way to help the situation, she explained, is to improve water conservation through heightened levels of technology and greater public awareness.

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