About 25 million Americans depend on the reservoir at Lake Mead for their water, including residents of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas.
This photo was taken on June 9, 2021, when the water in the lake was at 1,072 feet above sea level. That lighter stone ring, known as the lake’s “bathtub ring,” shows how much water has been lost due to a 22-year drought across the U.S. West.
From the current water level to the top of the ring is about 157 feet. That’s nearly 6 feet taller than the height of the Statue of Liberty from the top of its base to its torch.
This is an aerial view of Lake Mead taken in 2000, the last time the lake was full.
By 2020, the lake had been visibly depleted, while nearby Las Vegas, which derives about 90% of its water supply from the lake, had grown significantly.
At its fullest, Lake Mead contains about 8.51 trillion gallons of water. But it’s easiest to see just how much water has actually been lost if we cube it.
Today, the lake’s water level is at about 35% of full capacity. That’s a net loss of about 5.57 trillion gallons of water.
For scale, let’s park that cube on the Las Vegas Strip.
Now, think about the 5.57 trillion gallons we’re missing. You could say that’s…
- 🏠 the amount of water used by 50 million American households in a year (assuming about 300 gallons used per day), OR…
- 🧍enough that it’d take the 7.9 billion people in the world today about 3.86 years to drink it (at a half gallon per person per day), OR…
- enough to cover the entire state of West Virginia in a foot of water, OR…
- ⛲ enough to put 13 Bellagio Fountains in each of the United States’ 19,000+ cities, towns and villages.
In short: a lot of water
So how did we get here? The prolonged drought in the American West has been running for 22 years. That’s the driest period ever recorded in the 115 years that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has kept records.
The drought’s biggest effect on the water flowing into Lake Mead lies in the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles upstream. With annual snowpack in the mountains down more than a quarter of the usual level, the loss of snowmelt has choked off the water supply to the entire Colorado River Basin.
So what’s it mean for people downstream? A 2007 agreement decided how water from the Colorado River Basin system gets divvied up between California, Arizona and Nevada, and pegged limits according to the water level in Lake Mead. Restrictions come into force when the projected water level goes below particular thresholds. These limits are called “trigger elevations.”
2022 is expected to be the first year such restrictions are put in place. When the lake level falls between 1,050 and 1,075 feet, Arizona and Nevada will see cuts in their water supply.
And the future doesn’t look any wetter. Experts forecast a 1,047.8 ft lake level at the end of next year, which would push these Western states further into cuts to their water supply in 2023.
So barring a biblical flood or rainstorm, Western states will be dealing with a new parched reality in the years to come.