Lake Mead May Run Dry in 6 to 13 years

By David L. Brown

According to scientists at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, the vast reservoir behind Hoover Dam may run dry by the year 2021, leaving the rapidly growing city of Las Vegas, Nevada without water to sustain itself as well as the hydroelectric power produced by the dam. In all, 25 million people depend on the lower Colorado River system for water and power. Since 2000, Las Vegas has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States
Readers of my novel The Star Phoenix may recall a description of this very scenario, in which Lake Mead has become an empty waste of mudflats and the once-vibrant gambling city abandoned to encroaching desert. Once again, fiction threatens to become fact.

According to the Scripps report, there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead will run dry by 2021, and a 10 percent chance that will occur even sooner, by 2014. The projections are based on the continued severe drought conditions that have plagued the Southwest for several years and the amount of water used by humans. Further upstream the second main reservoir of the Colorado River, Lake Powell, is also shrinking. Besides Las Vegas and surrounding areas of Nevada much of Arizona also depends on the waters from the Colorado River reservoirs.
According to a story by the Associated Press about the Scripps report,

“We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said marine physicist Tim Barnett, who co-authored a paper examining the fate of Lake Mead. “Make no mistake — this water problem is not a scientific abstraction but rather one that will impact each and everyone of us that live in the Southwest.”

Water shortages worldwide are a major threat to civilization in the near future. There are many factors, including the rising demand for water by irrigated agriculture and growing population numbers. Ongoing climate change is affecting weather patterns and most models show that the Southwestern U.S. along with many other areas of the world can expect reduced rainfall in the future.

Water, as some have noted, will likely become “the oil of the 21st Century.” I disagree to some extent with that statement, because it seems apparent to me that food will be the most critical limited resource to take the center stage in the continuing environmental decline of our planet. To the extent that water is without doubt the most important input for food production, then the statement is correct. (For more on this see my essay “Water Shortages Threaten World with Famine,” posted here on October 3, 2006. Use the search field at upper right to find that and other previous articles.)

The vision of a dry and dessicated Lake Mead, especially in such a near future time, bodes very ill for the future of the Southwest. Here in New Mexico where I live near the banks of the Rio Grande River, we are equally concerned about future water supplies. However, the situation for those who depend on the waters of the Colorado River is particularly grim.

In the face of developing disasters such as this, still, there are those who continue to deny that global warming and the resulting climate change are real. Ignorance, alas, provides temporary comfort to those who lack knowledge or persist in denying the dire threats of these environmental changes.

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