Water levels at Lake Mead are expected to drop up to 25 feet over the next year after federal officials announced Friday a record-low annual release of water from an upstream reservoir.
Bureau of Reclamation officials said 7.48 million acre feet of water will be discharged from Lake Powell to Lake Mead this year, under a conservation plan adopted in 2007.
The release is the smallest discharge to Lake Mead since Lake Powell was filled in the 1960s and is the result of widespread drought throughout the western United States over the last decade.
“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” Bureau of Reclamation Upper Colorado Regional Director Larry Walkoviak said in a statement.
Water levels at Lake Mead have dropped more than 100 feet since 2000, as evidenced by the “bathtub rings” that surround the reservoir.
The water level is currently at 1,106 feet, and a continued drop will force serious action by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
At 1,075 feet, a federal water shortage declaration would be triggered, leading to cuts in supply for Nevada and Arizona. The latest projections show the lake could dip below that threshold by April 2015.
If the lake drops below 1,050 feet, it could knock out one of the intake straws the authority uses to pump drinking water from the reservoir to the valley, leading to water shortages.
A third intake straw is under construction at a lower elevation, but the $817 million project has been beset by delays and won’t be finished until at least next year.
Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said Lake Mead could see a reduced release from Lake Powell again next August, worsening the already existing situation. The authority is looking at a “smorgasbord” of options to blunt the impact of the drought on the region’s water supply, she said.
“All of them have dollars attached to them, and when we all feel comfortable around what that final pieces of that answer are going to look like, then we’re setting the table for the federal government to start thinking about putting money into this pot,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “There needs to be financial participation by the federal government, and the word emergency is not that formal emergency declaration, but a more generic, ‘This is a serious situation.’ What we expect to see is a 24-month study that will show the very real potential of two years in a row of receiving 750,000 acre feet less than normal, and normal is already a reduced amount.”
Las Vegas Sun reporter Andrew Doughman contributed to this report.