Lake Mead’s Dire Situation May Be Getting Much Worse: Here’s Why

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: David McNew / Contributor

As operations halted at one of Spain’s largest hydropower plants due to drought-stricken conditions, it highlights an ongoing problem at Nevada’s Lake Mead. According to Bloomberg, the Spanish electric utility company Endesa SA has shut down its facility after its water levels receded below 23 percent. This is below the minimum to produce electricity. The plant first opened in 1966 and, up until now, has never stopped operations.

The issue across the pond is a severe drought that officials haven’t seen in over ten years. However, it’s also similar to a continuing problem in the states. In the southwestern part of the United States, the region is crippled by drought. Now, officials are afraid for the future of Lake Mead, a manufactured reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, which spans across Nevada and Arizona.

The lake’s turbines provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of people in the area. However, receding water levels are steadily moving to deadpool levels. At this point, the dam’s turbines will no longer create power.

As the largest artificial reservoir in North America, it’s a vital water source for many.

Andrea Gerlak, professor at the School of Geography, Development & Environment at the University of Arizona, recently discussed the importance of this issue.

Drought issues in Spain ominously foreshadow what could happen to Lake Mead

“We are dangerously close to hitting the 950 foot elevation at Lake Mead needed to turn the turbines and generate electricity,” she said. “If water levels in the lake continue to drop, it will certainly have negative implications for electricity customers in the neighboring states and communities.”

Lake Mead’s water levels currently sit at 1,045 feet, which is only around 27 percent of its typical capacity.

According to a two-year probabilistic projection of the Colorado River system from the Bureau of Reclamation, the lake could reach 992 feet by the end of July 2024.

This prediction is the bureau’s “probable minimum” level the lake could reach within two years. However, experts have already warned that it could be dire if the lake reached deadpool status.

“But, more importantly—if and when Hoover Dam stops producing electricity—it will call into question our very assumptions for how we manage water and energy in the southwestern U.S.,” said Gerlak, who also acts as the director at the university’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.

“It will finally be time to have those difficult discussions about what it means to collectively share and manage a resource in sustainable and equitable ways in the face of changing climate.”

In addition, the lake is just one of many bodies of water in the states drying up as the drought ravages areas. For example, the Mississippi River has seen the driest conditions in years, while the Great Salt Lake water levels in Utah are the lowest ever recorded.