Lake Mead Shrivels to Historic Low Level. In Just Two Years, the Change is Dramatic Enough to be Visible from Space

By Tom Yulsman | July 11, 2014 1:59 pm
As seen in this animation of satellite images, Lake Mead has shriveled enough in just two years for the change to be evident from space. The first image was acquired on June xx, 2012 by NASA's xx satellite. The second was captured by the xx satellite, xx's twin, on June 28 2014.

An animation of images from NASA’s Aqua satellite shows a visible change in the size of Lake Mead in just two years.  (Source: NASA)

Not that it was any surprise, but thanks to continuing drought, Lake Mead is projected to shrivel this week to its lowest level since it first filled behind Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

All told, 40 million people in seven states depend on water from the Colorado River Basin. Lake Mead, situated near Las Vegas, is the giant hydrological savings bank that supplies water to the three lower basin states: Arizona, Nevada and California.

Lake Mead as seen from Hoover Dam. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Lake Mead as seen from Hoover Dam. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement about Lake Mead this week has received a fair bit of coverage. So you may have heard the news and seen now almost cliché photos of the white bathtub ring around the reservoir made of mineral deposits left behind as the water level has dropped. (Click on the thumbnail at right for an example. It shows Lake Mead from Hoover Dam on March 8, 2014.)

So for this post, I thought I’d try a different visual approach to dramatize what’s happening: the animation above consisting of before-and-after images of the reservoir as seen from space.

To create it, I used two images from NASA’s Aqua satellite. The first is from June 29, 2012, when Lake Mead’s elevation stood at 1,115.86 feet above sea level. Aqua snapped the second image on June 28th, by which point the reservoir had dropped to 1,082.93 feet.

As I write this on July 11, the bureau expects the reservoir to drop below 1,081.75 feet — an historic low.

The past 30 years comprise the driest such period in a record that extends back to 1906. And there is evidence from tree rings and other sources that what’s being seen in the Colorado River Basin is even more unusual than that. The current drought is going on 14 years now. And as Matt Jenkins has reported in High Country News

When matched up against every other 14-year period since 762 A.D., it falls in the driest 2 percent of all those periods.

That would make what we’ve been seeing one of the worst droughts in 1,200 years.

This year, snowpack in the mountainous Upper Colorado River Basin is expected to be slightly above normal, which should offer a bit of a reprieve. Even so, there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead’s elevation will drop below 1,075 feet by 2017. Should that happen, the Secretary of the Interior would issue a shortage declaration, triggering a significant reduction in water deliveries from the reservoir. Arizona and Nevada would be affected first.

Whether this happens in 2017 or not, sooner or later a day of reckoning is coming. With continued increases in emissions of greenhouse gases, the Southwestern United States is expected to dry even further.

  • Jose Dragovic

    The south western U.S. was and always has been a desert environment. It wasn’t until the government started building dams on the Colorado River , that crop production started to develop where there once was nothing but desert. On top of that , you add the development of Las Vegas as major entertainment and vacation attraction. Then you had the post WW2 migration of people to California and the other south western states, when you combine all of these factors and then add a 14 year drought that appears to one of the worst ones in history , you will have historic low water levels!!!!!Eventually the governments of the southwestern states are going to have to curb water use, greatly reduce the use of water or forbid the use of potable water for lawns , golf courses , washing cars , reduce the amount of water fountains , or for any other use other than consummation by humans, food preparation raising of livestock or other farm animals that are used as food for human consummation!! Farming of veggies and fruit is going to have to be done with the least use of water and with the most efficient methods of irrigation possible!!!!

    • BC

      The reason they have a hard time pulling back the rains on water use is its a crazy money maker. Here in North Texas we’re in worse shape than this, and now they’re raising water rates to help compensate for the lack of water their selling. If we don’t have any significant rain this Summer, come Winter it’s going to be real ugly around these parts. Right now there’s zero outside watering, car washes are closed 2 days a week and s few other restrictions. Our lake is at about 22% capacity and it provides water to probably close to 200,000 people.

      • Jose Dragovic

        I guess people are going to have to make a choise , live and not be rich or die of thirst and be rich!!!!! I have yet to see some one turn money into water, you don’t need money to live , but you only last a little less than a week with out water!! Take your pick!!

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    • Pedro_Schwartz

      Consumption, Jose, not “consummation”.

  • ImJustAGuy

    Demand has skyrocketed. Start off reducing demand by deporting all the illegal aliens from those states that take water from Lake Meade. That will help reduce the strain on the already scarce water resources.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. I’mJustAGuy: Why use such a ridiculous name? Why not use your real name? Would you be ashamed to have your comments attached to you personally? In any case, if you would like to continue commenting here you will keep to the point and not make outrageous statements like this. I don’t care whether it is satire. And if I see another one like it you will be banned from the site permanently.

      • Scott Hession

        Hear, hear

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        • Mr Beau

          It would be interesting to see if there are any facts at all regarding the water use of illegal aliens and what if any significant change that might have. It is not usually that they would have homes and lawns to water.

      • Guest

        Scared of reality?

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    • Margarita

      ImJustAGuy, Guest, Scott Hession and Mr. Beau – It is pretty common, out of ignorant people, to put the responsibility on others.

  • Dan Bergman

    Instead of sending 3.4 billion dollars to Friend of Obama, Lets use that money to build desalinization plants. duh. You know I just don’t get why people make things harder than they are.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Bergman: Do you have any idea what the cost of water from desalination plants is? No, I didn’t think so…

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        Not to mention the energy demands would be satisfied by fossil fuels directly or indirectly by diverting energy produced with renewable means. This would ironically be expected to contribute to the drought pattern that caused the need in the first place.

      • Louis C.

        It cost 1.5 billion to build and a cost of 70 million per year. One plant this size could supply all of Los Angeles and surrounding cities

  • Dan Bergman

    Oh, and one other thing, How can you believe anything this reporter writes if he throws in the greenhouse gas crap, which it appears everyone, except the elite few, understands is a scam?

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Bergman: Are you implying here that there is no drought? And that Lake Mead has not dropped to an historic low level? What is your evidence for this? Please be specific. As for the potential impact of greenhouse gases on future precipitation in the Southwest, at the very end of my piece I reported on what the overwhelming majority of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research in this area have determined. Would you prefer that I just make stuff up — that I lie and say that science has not reached this consensus?

      • Travis Tibbetts

        Mr. Yulsman, for me your last sentence implies there is a cause and effect that is absolute; more greenhouse gases = more drought. However, in some places around the world today they have record rain levels. The problem people like me have with others that throw the ‘boogey man’ of climate change and greenhouse gases around is that there is no consensus and there is no definite formula. I think you are correct that in 2017, Lake Mead will more than likely be lower than it is now. I just disagree with the cause and effect as being definite. I will cede that people of the world need to implement eco-friendly, sustainable technologies… but we can do that without using scare tactics.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          No. His last sentence implies that there is a cause and effect that is absolute: more greenhouse gases= more EXPECTATION of drought IN THE SOUTHWESTERN UNITED STATES.

          Caps for emphasis, not aggressive bludgeoning.

          You’ll note that Tom also provided a link that justifies his premise.

        • Chichiflys

          Not only is there a consensus on greenhouse gas but there is also a consensus on what is causing it. So the problem with people like you is that you spread misinformation.

          • Travis Tibbetts

            I have two problems with your reply. First, you are trying to shut down legitimate discourse about a subject by trying to make me out to be illegitimate. Second, weather is like the economy… there are numerous variables involved…. and just like it is folly to completely blame the economy on the President, it is equally absurd to say greenhouse gases are the only factor in climate change. There is NOT a consensus on greenhouse gases…. I suggest you start looking for information from other sources. Also, start following the money trail on the whole “climate change” issue… you will see the federal government has used the issue for more crony capitalism and transferring wealth to donor corporations. Do you really think compact fluorescent lights are superior to incandescent light bulbs when it comes to the economy? They are full of mercury gas and do not last as long as advertised… but they are incredibly more expensive and the profits they bring GE and other companies are massive. Please do yourself a favor and open your mind.

        • David Church

          There is near unanimous consensus from scientists and researchers with the educational background and professional expertise in that field of scientific study that climate change is real and industrial and manufactured greenhouse gases are the most significant cause. (On any subject, you can always find a few people who disagree wit the consensus of a vast majority of experts. However, although they might be highly qualified in one subject area, they seldom have expertise and in depth knowledge in fields related to climate change.)

          The fact that some areas of the world are experiencing record rainfalls and flooding while others are experiencing record droughts actually supports the consensus that climate change is real. Record rainfalls in localized area are a result of more moisture in the atmosphere. That moisture came from bodies of water like Lake Mead, and melting ice caps and glaciers and was carried around the world by lower level winds and high altitude jet streams.

          • Travis Tibbetts

            David Church, I have news for you: the climate has changed in the world from the beginning of time. Read the National Geographic and you will learn that. I didn’t read it from a biased source. So if “Climate Change due to Man-Made Greenhouse gases” is a consensus by all of the scientists that “really know what they are talking about”, then why would the Australians repeal their carbon tax laws?
            I really hope you reply to my reply with an answer to this question. I really want you to dig deep and think about it: Why do you want so badly to believe in the hype about climate change? I ask for an honest answer.
            If our government really thought there was catastrophe coming due to climate change, dont you think they would be taking much stronger measures than they have? Such as doing away with drive through services. Think about how much green house gas is expelled when millions of cars around this globe are sitting idle waiting to get their hamburgers handed to them. Even Al Gore doesn’t believe in it, evidenced by the way he recklessly leaves every light on in his huge house.
            Why can’t you see that there is a lot of money scientists can get in the form of grants to prove climate change? Those same scientists that you put your full faith and confidence in as being driven only by the thirst for knowledge. You, sir, are naive.

  • ImJustAGuy

    It’s a supply and demand issue, plain and simple. We can start reducing the demand by deporting all the illegal aliens!

    • Darcy Faegre

      Pretty sure the real DEMAND is that you do some research and find out what you are talking about instead of SUPPLYing us with random racism.

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        He didn’t say anything about race.

        • Darcy Faegre

          Because so many illegal aliens are WASPs. Seriously? You don’t think that’s a racist comment? Plus, it’s ridiculous to think that immigrants are the ones using all the water. I suppose if we booted them all and they couldn’t take care of our crops then we wouldn’t need to use the water….. so indirectly he’s right as long as we’re all good with sky high food prices.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Addressing an issue that surrounds race isn’t the same thing as being racist. Talking about illegal immigrants because they are illegal is not the same thing as talking about them because they are “ethnic.”

            The second half of your last post was actually an argument that didn’t rely on the straw man of crying racism. And I agree with you.

    • David Sloan

      So now you have reduced demand by a tiny fraction of 1%. Watcha got planned next, big boy?

  • Scott Hession

    I’m new here, can I cut and paste short pieces from other news outlets, or this one for that matter, to point out to the unintelligent just how ignorant they are?

  • Travis Tibbetts

    Interesting that the canals here in Yuma, Arizona run full all of the time… seems to me that they could cut down on flow out of the reservoir to build up Lake Mead…. the canals here could still deliver water to crops with less water in them.

  • Dennis Conners

    First of all it isn’t Arizona’s Lake Mead. All the construction of Hoover Dam was orchestrated entirely from Nevada. So if you want to attribute Lake Mead to just one state is Nevada.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Point well taken. The one fact I did not check I got wrong — it is not lake Mead is not “Arizona’s.” The border between Arizona and Nevada goes down the middle of the reservoir. I’ve corrected the error in the story. Thank you Mr. Conners!

  • Dennis Conners

    Tom and Scott lighten up. IJG is being sarcastic.

    • Tom Yulsman

      He may well have been sarcastic. But his comments have caused others to weigh in on immigration — a topic that is completely irrelevant to my post. (In fact, it encouraged one person to make completely serious racist comments, which I’ve deleted.) My goal here is to encourage intelligent and focused discussion. I do not want ImaGeo to turn into yet another place for blowhards to spout whatever nonsense comes to their minds. There are plenty of other places for that. I won’t have it here.

  • Adrian

    In response to ImJustAGuy: If I recall correctly, immigration statistics show that we’ve had some of the lowest immigration numbers to the US since the start of the Recession. With stronger immigration laws as well less economic opportunity, many immigrants choose either to not migrate at all or head back if they are here.

    Secondly, I like the concept of doing more desalination plants. It is true, they are incredibly expensive and very energy intensive as well but we can complain about the reservoir dropping or we can try and find a solution. States near the ocean such as California have already started this trend. Supplementing California’s water supply through desalination will give higher population areas such as California’s southern mega cities more options instead of opting to pull water from Lake Mead. If this were the case I’d like to see a large federal works project to help create solar or wind farms to fuel the energy needs of the desalination plants and additionally more desalination plants. This would help alleviate water demands as well as create green energy jobs and high tech construction.

  • Grey

    I would really like to see the growth and implementation of desalination plants. Although this is very expensive, new techology always is.

    My biggest concern of desalination plants is the impact our water tables will have if we introduce microbes/bacteria/algae and other non-indegenous fauna/flora to the water tables. We do not yet have a way to restore the water tables if we accidentally damaging organisms.

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  • fuego

    I live in Seattle and they remind people to be mindful of their water use; not any where to the extent in Southwest. Animals, crops and people all need clean water and desalination isn’t going to work in Arizona or Nevada.

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ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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