Lake Meadthe nation’s largest reservoir, spent much of last spring and summer in freefall.
Over the course of four months, Mead’s the altitude has decreased An astonishing 20 feet, first exposing one of the giants of the lake intake valves in April before revealing more sinister things – several sets of human remainsincluding a policeman said it was the result of a decades old homicide.
But as the news focused on the remains, western state officials and Colorado River experts watched the water level drop with fear of what it could mean for 40 million people which rely on the river for drinking water, electricity and crop irrigation.
Lake Mead dropped to its lowest level to date in July 2022, when the elevation reached 1,040 feet. If the tank had fallen another 145 feet, it would have become a “dead pool”, unable to provide water or hydropower to millions of customers.
“People were really looking at the real possibility of a dead pool,” Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, told CNN. “It’s incredible to think about — no water is coming out of either of the two reservoirs,” she said, referring to Lake Mead’s upstream neighbor, Lake Powell.
A year later, Mead’s height is up again. A combination of historical winter snow and new federal agreements to pay cities, farmers and tribes for water conservation are expected to raise the Mead to a high point of 1,070 feet in February 2024, according to the latest federal data. This height will likely change as more conservation agreements are signed.
Paying people to save precious water was an essential component of recently concluded agreement between the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada to collectively conserve 3 million acre-feet over the next three years, experts say.
But as the maps and charts show, the extra water will be a drop in the bucket for a tank that has dropped dramatically in the last two decades.
Mead’s projected high of 1,070 for next year “is a lot better than 1,045,” Porter said. “Sounds like a nice high, but we know how quickly it can go down.”
Conservation agreements are sure to contribute to Lake Mead’s modest growth in the coming months. But state officials and experts told CNN that the biggest effect on the reservoir by far will be the deluge of winter snowmelt in the headwaters of the Colorado River.
The June 2023 forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center shows a projected flow of 13.85 million acre-feet into Lake Powell for 2023, which is 144% of average flow.
“We’re doing great from a water-year perspective,” Paul Miller, a hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Office, told CNN.
However, the drought deficit is so great that experts say the West would need four or five more years of snowmelt like this year to truly fill Powell and Mead.
Experts say the winter snowpack, however exceptional, is “buying time” for states to come up with a way to live with much less water in a warmer, drier future.
“I don’t know if it’s breathing space because it buys more time to have really critical conversations,” Miller said.
For Western states, he added, the situation allows time to figure out “how we take advantage of this relatively wet year to implement some water-saving strategies and water-efficiency strategies.”
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages interstate river reservoir systems like Lakes Mead and Powell, is keenly aware this winter’s snow and rain were a blip as the West grows warmer and drier.
“Although we had an exceptionally wet winter this year, our long-term drought concerns remain,” Bureau Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told CNN in an emailed statement. “We will continue to work with cities, tribes, irrigators and other stakeholders to ensure that current investments and future system conservation measures are sustainable, sustainable and contribute to long-term water savings in the Colorado River.”
Good winters followed by equally good spring runs have been hard to come by in the West in recent years. Even when the above-average snowpack fell, the runoff didn’t produce as much water because dry land it sucks up more water before it reaches the tanks.
“You have one good year and it’s historically followed by three bad years,” James Heffner, a senior hydrogeologist with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told CNN.
Even with this good year, the Colorado River is still expected to operate in a so-called Level 1 shortage next year — an improvement over the first lack of Tier 2 which was implemented this year and required additional water cuts from Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Even so, states are expected to continue to reduce water use with the federally offset program.
Kristen Johnson, ADWR’s program manager on the Colorado River, told CNN the big water year “couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“It really gave some breathing room,” she said. “Otherwise, we would be in a very uncomfortable position without hydrology.”