Lake Mead is the highest-capacity reservoir in the United States. Water reservoirs serve as buffers between natural water sources and the human populations that benefit from them.
In most cases, they are basins where water is collected from a river and is then moved through a water treatment plant to get ready for human consumption. Reservoirs also manage water volume, aiming to protect communities from the effects of excessive rainfall or snowfall.
Lake Mead sits in Nevada at the meeting point of the Colorado and Virgin rivers, just east of Las Vegas. It’s often shadowed in importance by its infamous plug, the Hoover Dam. Lake Mead catches flowage from rivers, which are then sent through the Hoover Dam back into the Colorado River.
Water from this reservoir supplies Arizona, Nevada, California, and New Mexico with water. The thing is, this water is running extremely low.
As water levels sink, many things have emerged from what used to be the depths. Bodies, boats, and secrets from the past are among the recent discoveries.
More concerning, though, is the fact that this reservoir is dying, and millions of people depend on it. We’ll look at the factors causing the situation first, then explore some of the interesting things that people have discovered in the sands of Lake Mead.
What’s Happening to Lake Mead?
Lake Mead is experiencing some of its lowest water levels since it was filled in 1937. These levels are heavily influenced by the amount of snowfall in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, as well as the flow of the Virgin River.
According to the NPS, “climate change and 20 years of ongoing drought” have significantly changed the lake’s shores. Currently, the lake is about 40 feet below the “drought warning” level.
Hovering at around 1,040 feet, the water level is dangerously low for the surrounding communities. Las Vegas, for example, depends heavily on the lake for drinking water.
Anticipatory measures costing roughly 1.5 billion dollars have been made to ensure that there’s access to the lake’s drinking water. If the levels drop below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam stops producing electricity.
There are preventative and creative measures to retain drinking water and electricity produced from the reservoir, but the main point is that Lake Mead is experiencing distinct symptoms of climate change. If things continue on the path they’re currently on, the communities surrounding Lake Mead will have to restructure or else experience water and electricity shortages.
Why Is It Happening?
There are a few key reasons that underpin the lake’s current situation. One of the primary reasons is that the southwestern United States has been experiencing record drought levels for the last few years. The candle is burning from both ends, with extremely low precipitation and, conversely, high temperatures.
So, there is less water to work with and more heat to dry up the remaining water. These factors lead to human challenges with potable water and higher frequencies of wildfires. Drought.gov claims that the current situation is caused by a “natural but severe period of low rain and snowfall and warm temperatures exacerbated by human-caused global warming.”
Southwestern precipitation levels were at their 100-year low in 2020, and while these levels tend to bounce up and down over the years like a sine wave, the downward trend is concerning for the future. In terms of Lake Mead, these trends impact the Rocky Mountain Range’s snowpack and ground soil levels.
It’s thought that the low levels of precipitation are a natural change. These are naturally-occurring patterns in nature, and it just so happens that they’re coinciding with the unnaturally high temperatures from artificial climate change.
This shortens the winter season and dries out the soil. Less moisture in the soil further contributes to higher temperatures, and that perpetuates the vicious cycle. The drought of the last couple of years falls in the context of a 20-year-long “megadrought.”
Lake Mead is at the whim of these environmental factors, and a large amount of its recession can be attributed to them.
High Levels of Extraction
Roughly 25,000,000 people depend on Lake Mead for water. Since 2000, a “bathtub ring” of white sediment has started to form in the perimeter where water used to be.
As the water level dies, the ring serves as a reminder of how much has been lost. Currently, the length from the water to the top of the ring is taller than the Statue of Liberty.
This isn’t all left up to human consumption, of course. That said, millions and millions of people utilize this water every single day. Demand for water hasn’t diminished with the precipitation levels.
Further, there were 331.9 million people living in the United States in 2021. That’s around 50,000,000 lower than the number in the year 2000. As populations rise, so do the water demands of the southwestern states dependent on Lake Mead.
Further, the drought in the Southwest isn’t simply limited to the areas surrounding Lake Mead. It’s present in the entire region, which means that other reservoirs and water sources are suffering as well.
When those smaller reservoirs are rendered useless or dangerously low, people look to Lake Mead to fill the gap. This excessive strain caused by more people, more demand for water, and a lack of support are perpetuated by the presence of climate change and naturally-occurring low levels of precipitation.
A lot of water naturally evaporates in Nevada’s heat every year. If the water level is full, the lake yearly evaporates more than 1,000,000 acre-feet (one foot-acre is 326,000 gallons).
That’s around 10% of the inflow from rivers and precipitation each year. That occurs naturally, but rates will increase as temperatures rise. Heat naturally evaporates water, and more water evaporates if you have more heat.
The reality of lake evaporation change in the face of climate change is also around 15% higher than previous estimates. Further, reservoirs evaporate at a rate of roughly 5.4% each year, whereas natural lakes evaporate at a rate of 2.1%.
These factors all combine to create a pretty dire situation for Lake Mead.
This devastating process is currently taking place. It’s not something that is supposed to happen in the future – it’s literally occurring and putting surrounding communities in the way of difficult, life-altering water shortages.
One of the grim side effects of this shift is the onslaught of bodies and wrecks emerging from that water as it falls.
What’s Turning Up inside Lake Mead?
Five sets of human remains have been discovered, according to the NPS. One set of remains was found in a barrel. The remains in the barrel are believed to have come from a man who died from gunshot wounds in the 70s or 80s.
Two paddleboarders approached what they thought was a rock but turned out to be a set of human bones. Police in the area say there’s a “very good chance” that more bones will pop up.
It’s fair to think that there are many more bodies in the lake. It’s the largest reservoir in the United States, tucked in the middle of a long and winding desert, accompanied by the largest gambling center in the world.
Las Vegas blossomed along with the building of the Hoover Dam, as the project’s workers were some of the first incentives for locals to build casinos and produce shows. Organized crime was also already present in the city at the time the dam was built.
For the first decades of its existence as a gambling hub, Las Vegas was heavily influenced by the presence of organized crime.
Ninety years of organized crime and extreme population growth next to a vast body of water is bound to result in a few John and Jane Does, unfortunately.
Other Relics From Lake Mead
Alongside human remains was the wreckage of a WWII war ship. There was also a crashed B-29 Bomber plane that crashed into the lake in 1948.
That plane is still deep down under the surface, but you can now see it in the right light. As the lake is an unnatural thing, it engulfed everything that used to lie at its bottom.
Before the 1930s, there was a Mormon settlement there for more than 65 years. This town was called St. Thomas, and it has been visible for the past ten years.
With such a long history, it’s inevitable that more artifacts will emerge from Lake Mead if it doesn’t stop shrinking. Hopefully, those items will never see the light of day.
What’s Next for Lake Mead?
Unfortunately, the projections for Lake Mead’s future aren’t very bright. Water levels are expected to drop, and the drought is expected to continue for at least a few years.
Climatologist Park Williams of UCLA says that the drought should break after a long string of very ‘good luck’ years. It won’t last forever, but he says it is the longest and driest stretch of time the area has seen in the last 1,000 years.
Fortunately, though, the naturally-occurring low levels of precipitation will return to normal. When that happens, things will start to return to normal in Lake Mead.
That’s only one aspect of the problem, though. If human-caused climate change doesn’t slow down and stop, the lake and the people around it will inevitably need to find another source of water if we don’t experience a string of good luck years.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
1. Will Lake Mead fill up again?
It’s uncertain whether Lake Mead will ever fill up again, although its levels will rise and fall to different degrees. The lake doesn’t need to be full to fulfill its purpose of providing water to the surrounding communities.
That said, the state of the lake’s future is uncertain.
2. Why is Lake Mead drying up?
Lake Mead is drying up from a natural drought, man-made climate change, high evaporation, and over-extraction.
The drought is a primary cause, but human-caused climate change is exacerbating the issue a great deal.
3. Is Lake Mead’s depth changing?
Lake Mead’s maximum depth is around 530 feet. It’s now dipping to under 30% of its full capacity. If the lake reaches a low of 22% as is projected for the end of 2022, that would leave the lake at around 116 feet deep.
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- National Park Service, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/lake/learn/news/lakeconditions.htm
- Drought.gov, Available here: https://www.drought.gov/news/new-noaa-report-exceptional-southwest-drought-exacerbated-human-caused-warming
- CNN, Available here: https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/17/us/lake-mead-drought-water-shortage-climate/index.html
- USA Facts, Available here: https://usafacts.org/state-of-the-union/population/?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=ND-StatsData&msclkid=a099665fc8dd11663ec3056dc1f25244
- Phys.org, Available here: https://phys.org/news/2022-06-climate-global-lake-evaporation-loss.html
- Review Journal, Available here: https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/local-las-vegas/projections-grim-for-future-of-the-colorado-river-2446452/