Is Lake Mead Shrinking Because of Climate?

Steve Milloy

Wall Street Journal reporter Jim Carlton says Lake Mead is shrinking because of climate change. Is it? We report. You decide.

Here’s is Carlton’s claim:

First, the history of Lake Mead’s elevation is actually quite volatile.

And the elevation is relatively low now — about 1,070 feet.

But today’s elevation is not all that different from the low points of 1956 and 1965 (about 1,090 feet, shown in first graph), especially when you consider the increases in water use and human management of reservoir levels over time.

No doubt that drought is affecting Lake Mead. But Western drought is natural (the region is a desert, after all), and Lake Mead was comparably low more than 100 ppm CO2 ago.

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Bryan A
June 24, 2022 10:46 pm

Of course Increased demand from Las Vegas has nothing at all to do with it
In 1990 Las Vegas had a population of 708,000
By 2020 the population had blossomed to 2,699,000
10% of the water comes from ground wells but Lake Mead supplies the Lions share

Bill Powers
Reply to  Bryan A
June 25, 2022 5:15 am

Bryan stop stepping on their narrative. Don’t you know they have a plane to save Lake Mead? Its a simple plan really. You and the rest of us great unwashed, abandon fossil fuels and leave it to the rich and famous and then Lake Mead will be restored to overflowing no matter how may people move to Las Vegas.

Reply to  Bill Powers
June 25, 2022 7:23 am

We remain unwashed to help save Lake Mead. At least give us credit for that.

Alan Robertson
Reply to  BallBounces
June 25, 2022 3:31 pm

Listening to: The Police- “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”

Reply to  Bryan A
June 25, 2022 9:22 am

Not ALL their fault – the Central Arizona Project increased the draw on the Colorado, too.

Tom in Florida
Reply to  writing observer
June 25, 2022 11:11 am

And California has been overdrawing their allotment for many years.

Last edited 11 months ago by Tom in Florida
June 24, 2022 10:46 pm

But today’s elevation is not all that different from the low points of 1956 and 1965″
Those low points are artificial 1956 is when they started construction of the Glen Canyon dam (Lake Powell) upstream of Lake Mead. And 1965 is when they started filling Lake Powell. The notable change in the sequence after 1965 is the effect of Lake Powell.

Robert B
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 1:10 am

It’s Wikipedia but probably more reliable than yourself
“Lake Mead receives the majority of its water from snow melt in the Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah Rocky Mountains. Inflows to the lake are largely moderated by the upstream Glen Canyon Dam, which is required to release 8.23 million acre-feet (10,150,000 megaliters) of water each year to Lake Mead. Hoover Dam is required to release 9 million acre-feet (11,000,000 megaliters) of water each year, with the difference made up by tributaries that join the Colorado below Glen Canyon or flow into Lake Mead. Outflow, which includes evaporation and delivery to Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico[14] from Lake Mead is generally in the range of 9.5 to 9.7 million acre-feet (11,700,000 to 12,000,000 megaliters), resulting in a net annual deficit of about 1.2 million acre-feet (1,500,000 megaliters).[15]

Before the filling of Lake Powell (a reservoir of similar size to Lake Mead) behind Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River flowed largely unregulated into Lake Mead, making Mead more vulnerable to drought. From 1953 to 1956, the water level fell from 1,200 to 1,085 feet (366 to 331 m). During the filling of Lake Powell from 1963 to 1965, the water level fell from 1,205 to 1,090 feet (367 to 332 m).[16] Many wet years from the 1970s to the 1990s filled both lakes to capacity,[17][18] reaching a record high of 1,225 feet (373 m) in the summer of 1983.[18]

In these decades prior to 2000, Glen Canyon Dam frequently released more than the required 8.23 million acre-feet (10,150,000 megaliters) to Lake Mead each year. That allowed Lake Mead to maintain a high water level despite releasing significantly more water than it is contracted for. However, since 2000, the Colorado River has experienced the southwestern North American megadrought, with average or above-average conditions occurring in only five years (2005, 2008–2009, 2011 and 2014) in the first 16 years of the 21st century. Of any 16 year period in the last 60 years, 2000-2015 had the lowest water availability.[19] Although Glen Canyon was able to meet its required minimum release until 2014, the water level in Lake Mead has steadily declined. The decreasing water level is due to the loss of the surplus water that once made up for the annual overdraft.”

1956 was not artificial, but did not have the benefit of Lake Powell ensuring more consistent flow. It’s irrelevant when the design is to have inflow from L Powell less than outflow. Of course, the greater use of water is also artificial.

Were the unprecedented wet decades due to climate change? Of course not. Natural is extreme variation.

Reply to  Robert B
June 25, 2022 2:04 am

Well, Wiki certainly agrees on this one
During the filling of Lake Powell from 1963 to 1965, the water level fell from 1,205 to 1,090 feet”
It seems the level of Lake Mead is very linked to what happens with Lake Powell.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 10:37 am

Nick, the question is: Is climate change affecting Lake Mead. Why do you continue to kick up dust on unrelated issues of operation the entire Colorado River system?

Reply to  Dave Fair
June 25, 2022 1:15 pm

Because the present low point was compared with the 1965 level. That was really the point of the article. And the 1965 level was obviously artificially low because water was being withheld to fill Lake Powell. That is relevant.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 1:57 pm

Who cares about your nitpicking of minor, inconsequential points? It was pointed out to you that the 1956 level was also comparatively as low as today’s. And atmospheric CO2 levels were still much lower then.

You continue to ridiculously strut your supposed superiority to the WUWT troglodytes. Your obvious attempts continue to fail miserably.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 4:44 pm

Nick, Global warming caused so much precipitation in the years of the late 70s and early 80s that the water actually overtopped the extended spillway gates by 4 to 5 feet in 1983, and what a site that was.

So why has it now caused the Great Drought?

Never mind, we all know that CO2 can do everything simultaneously.

After the filling of Lake Powell, both Lake Powell 25 million acre feet and Lake Mead 29 million acre feet filled up while also providing for irrigation and people and still Lake Mead overflowed.

There have been calls to drain Lake Powel since so much water is lost to evaporation.

And you really can’t compare Lake Mead levels before and after the Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, can you Nick? If you do, just look at the fact that Lake Mead was never full after construction until AFTER Lake Powell was also holding water.

BTW, the reason that Lake Mead overflowed into the spillways was because the Bureau of Reclamation was so afraid of drought that they didn’t release enough water in 1982 and early 1983 to allow room for the 1982/3 winter snowpack. I also seem to remember they were more worried about the Glen Canyon dam then Hoover dam, so they lowered Lake Powell sooner and more.

Robert B
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 4:37 pm

Did you notice that I didn’t pretend that it didn’t.

The thing is that it filled up quickly because of an unusual (for the short history of the area) wet decade. It was declining as rapidly, once that decade was over, as in the past decade, until the extremely wet 90s. The system is not set up to survive a long drought, that occurred often before the invention of the car. It is not some sort of meter for global climate change.

Bryan A
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 26, 2022 8:49 pm

Lake Powell is UPSTREAM for Lake Mead and is/was part of the Lake Mead watershed area so…certainly what happens within the Lake Mead watershed area affects Lake Mead it very likely affects Lake Powell as much, as the chart here speaks to

Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 5:20 am

Starting construction of the Glen Canyon dam in 1956 had absolutely no effect on inflows to Lake Mead, since no storage in Lake Powell could possibly take place until construction was finished, thus allowing the river bypass to be shut off and start filling the pool in 1965.

Reply to  Duane
June 25, 2022 7:30 am

Not the inflows, but it may have affected the dam management policy at Lake Mead. That speculation is based on the coincidence of dates. But I now think it more likely that, as with Wiki quoted above, it was a dry spell with effect enhanced by the lack of Lake Powell.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 2:16 pm

Nick, as someone who was involved with “dam management policy” at Hoover Dam I tell you that you have no idea as to the complexities of managing the Colorado river water and power operations nor that of any other major river systems. Who cares what you think?

Pete Bonk
Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 10:13 am

Yes there is drought-a condition endemic to many of the Western states, but where would Lake Mead levels be if Glen Canyon Dam had not been built?

Reply to  Nick Stokes
June 25, 2022 11:34 am

It’s a artificial lake in a desert. That there is ever water to fill it is chancy.

Reply to  Jamaica
June 25, 2022 4:47 pm

But the water comes from the Colorado Rockies snowpack.

Bob Weber
June 24, 2022 10:51 pm

” Lake Mead is shrinking because of climate change. Is it?”

Yes, if you take the meaning of ‘climate change’ being blamed here the way I do, not their way. It means the drought is a climate response to solar activity, specifically generally low sunspot activity since the modern maximum ended in 2004.

This solar response can be seen in the Lake Mead MSLE, inflow, and outflow data, and the Colorado River Streamflow at Lee’s Ferry, AZ data, and in precipitation and drought data.

When each respective data indice is computed as a cumulative departure from average (CDA), their CDA zero-crossings can be used as endpoints for calculating an average sunspot number for each indice, its threshold. I have examined over 6 dozen climate indices this way.

Lake Mead MSLE is closely linked to US and worldwide precipitation/drought indices through their CDA solar thresholds, all within sunspot number of 100 +-6. The PDO and the Colorado River Streamflow at Lee’s Ferry, AZ are very closely linked at 99 SN each.

This drought is connected to the solar minimum and La Nina. The La Nina will turn into El Nino as solar activity remains high enough now, and the PDO will also turn more positive, all driving more precipitation during and after the solar max. Until then, within the next few years, maybe this year, Lake Mead will very likely hit deadpool.

I blame the federal government for wasting time on sequestering CO2 instead of water. This drought has nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions, but it does have a lot to do with increasing water demand out west in the US. People there should demand something be done to prioritize the transport and storage of excess rainfall in aquifers instead of doing useless no-climate-gain CO2 sequestration projects.

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Last edited 11 months ago by Bob Weber
G Mawer
Reply to  Bob Weber
June 25, 2022 9:53 am

“I blame the federal government for wasting time on sequestering CO2 instead of water.”

Reply to  G Mawer
June 25, 2022 4:51 pm

I have a plan to reuse all the windmill towers. Weld them end to end from the Columbia river to Lake Mead, add some pump stations, and the Colorado river draught problem is solved.

You may need 2 or 3 pipes, but with all the bird choppers I have seen while driving across the US, there should be enough.

June 24, 2022 11:01 pm

Any analysis of Lake Mead elevation is useless without a history of extraction. All the “entitled” surrounding states have been granted rights far in excess of capacity.

Reply to  Rob_Dawg
June 25, 2022 5:32 am

Pool level only indicates the volume of stored water in each reservoir. The relevant stats are the stream flows of the Colorado River and it’s key tributary steam flows (primarily the Green River and San Juan River) upstream of Glen Canyon Dam, and tributaries downstream of Glen Canyon Dam (principally the Little Colorado River and Virgin River). The streams convey the runoff from Rocky Mountains on the Pacific continental divide resulting from melting of snow pack.

It’s a fairly complex system of in flows as described above and outflows due to consumption by the states forming the Colorado River Compact. But media people are too dumb to grasp that, so they focus only on pool levels.

June 24, 2022 11:26 pm

I told you. It is getting dryer on the higher latitude.

June 25, 2022 1:52 am

Clearly looking at the raw water level and inferring any relationship to climate change is nonsense when the level has nothing to do with nature.

June 25, 2022 2:06 am

On the basis of this graphic, I’d say climate change is not significantly to blame.comment image

Reply to  MrGrimNasty
June 25, 2022 8:43 am

Thanks for posting this, it says it all. It should be added to the original post. This along with an explanation that the Lake Mead decline in the ’50 was natural and the decline in the ’60 was caused by the filling of Lake Powell would make a convincing argument that the recent drop is mostly because of increased water usage. Do you have a reference?

By the way, Marc Reisner, in “Cadillac Desert” written in 1986, made the case that the Colorado River and Lake Mead was oversubscribed (more water taken out than the average stream flow in). That was known by the 1950s, yet nothing was done to fix the incorrect water allocations. What happened to Lake Mead isn’t due to any recent climate change, it was expected for at least 35 years.

Having a drought in the US SW has always been the expected thing – even well before the “climate crisis” scam.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Meab
June 25, 2022 2:22 pm

It doesn’t matter what was known or when it was commonly known. The only thing that matters is the fecklessness of the politicians that allocate the water with no care as to long-term availability. “So what if the water won’t be there in the future to meet commitments? I won’t be there either.”

Reply to  Dave Fair
June 25, 2022 5:29 pm

Ah, but it DOES matter. It’s, PRECISELY because the allocation error was known 35 years ago that we know, without doubt, that the politicians who are now claiming “climate crisis” are feckless.

Ron Long
June 25, 2022 3:49 am

The water flow history of the Colorado River is best indicated by the formation of the Grand Canyon. Lake Powell is upstream of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead is below the Grand Canyon. Although ancestral Colorado Rivers existed as long ago as Paleozoic (more than 250 million years ago), the Grand Canyon really gets cut to essentially current depth starting 2 million years ago, with the onset of the main phase of the Ice Age we currently live in. The main high water flow events were associated with the melting phase of a glacial cycle, when grand pulses of water ran down the Colorado River. These pulses are associated with temporary formation of ice dams and then breaching of them. The Channeled Scablands in the State of Washington are another example of the process. Trying to measure Colorado River flow versus two large reservoirs versus various extraction/diversion issues is irrelevant in the big picture. Aren’t those fountains at the Bellagio entertaining?

Reply to  Ron Long
June 25, 2022 6:46 am

Help me out with this: didn’t read somewhere a couple of years ago that there is a plan to remove the Glen Canyon Dam? Remove half the storage capacity to make water more available?

Dave Fair
Reply to  Ron Long
June 25, 2022 10:53 am

“…  “all of the water used inside the resort is reclaimed and returned to Lake Mead …” applies to all of the casino resorts. The casino corridor accounts for 3% of Las Vegas’ water usage.

Reply to  Dave Fair
June 27, 2022 5:56 pm

Several casinos in Las Vegas have their own wells. The water permits are on file.

They may not directly use much Colorado River water, but they are draining the water table.

Of more concern are the misters cooling outside temperatures and raising the humidity in use at various Las Vegs shopping venues.

George Ellis
June 25, 2022 5:31 am

And then there is the Central Arizona Project.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  George Ellis
June 25, 2022 8:13 am

CAP extraction is downstream of Hoover Dam, so not relevant to Mead’s level. If Lake Mead goes dead pool, Cap extraction must fall dramatically.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 25, 2022 9:31 am

Joel, Hoover Dam has to release that water for the CAP to pick it up. The massive draw for California also happens below the dam.

Len Werner
June 25, 2022 6:03 am

This is a perfect demonstration of the subject of a recent article here, that ‘accurate beliefs’ of climate change get quickly destroyed by skeptics arguments.

It is gratifying too see so many rebuttals of the drought-is-the-reason claim for Lake Mead dropping; I’m not the only one who understands that Mead is dropping because people are simply using more water from it than is entering it.

Also, to make the claim that the 1956 low was because the Colorado flow was going through a bypass tunnel rather than the river channel is a good example of an alarmist lie. There are good reasons that the climate change belief is so fragile.

Remember the punch line(s) of that old New England joke–‘The good news, gentlemen, is that within 10 years your river will consist of nothing but raw sewage’.

‘The bad news is that there won’t be enough to go around’.

At least half fits here. EPA apparently works on the other half, albeit inconsistently.

CD in Wisconsin
Reply to  Len Werner
June 25, 2022 6:42 am

“This is a perfect demonstration of the subject of a recent article here, that ‘accurate beliefs’ of climate change get quickly destroyed by skeptics’ arguments.”

The first graph (light yellow) is of no use to the climate alarmists because it does not show the current water level to be historically unprecedented. The alarmists would have to cherry-pick a starting date of around 1983 or 1984 for the graph to be of any use to them.

Reply to  CD in Wisconsin
June 25, 2022 4:57 pm

June 1983, when the water was 4 to5 feet above the extended spillway gates seems about right, about 40 years of disastrous drought.

June 25, 2022 6:42 am

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are MAN MADE Reservoirs thus misleading to blame their low levels on the climate since they are not natural bodies of water in the first place.

Tom in Florida
Reply to  Sunsettommy
June 25, 2022 11:13 am

Excellent point and one that people always ignore.

Rud Istvan
June 25, 2022 7:13 am

Climate change did not cause the population growth in semidesert states Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. Their growing water demands have something to do with annual extractions from Mead and Powell. The only viable ‘short term’ solution is SoCal desalination, which they have rejected now twice.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
June 25, 2022 4:58 pm

Don’t forget they decommissioned a nuke plant that could have provided the power necessary.

June 25, 2022 7:18 am

Of course climate affects Lake Mead levels…..long-term precipitation amounts are what fill such huge reservoirs. Outflow levels are what empty them.

The climate that is involved is the climate of the watershed for Lake Mead. Which is climatically dry. Sometimes, some decades, some centuries, it is very dry, sometimes very very dry.

When incoming water is less than outgoing water, the lake must shrink.

Overall, long-term, the combined inflow is about 9 million-acre-feet while evaporation amounts to an outflow of o.6 million-acre-feet — extractions for human use (citites etc) annually run to 9.6 million acre-feet. This results in an annual deficit of 1.2 million acre feet.

Changing precipitation patterns and amounts only slightly change the overall inflow year-to-year.

The overriding factor for Lake Mead is “Annual outflow from Lake Mead
— Lower Basin apportionments to States and Mexico Treaty allocation plus downstream regulation including side inflows, evapotranspiration, transmission losses, etc.”

If rainfall and snowpack increase appreciably for a period of years, the level will rise ONLY if the increase moves inflow to greater than outflow.

The problem is simple: The bucket called Lake Mead has a hole in it.

Bruce Cobb
June 25, 2022 10:14 am

No, it’s because it was in the pool!

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
June 25, 2022 2:11 pm

That settles it then. We all need to go and pee in Lake Mead.

Reply to  Jeff Alberts
June 25, 2022 6:43 pm

Just pee in ANY toilet in Vegas not on a septic system and it will eventually get back to Lake Mead.

Matthew Schilling
June 25, 2022 10:42 am

If only we lived on a water planet and civilization had advanced far enough to split the atom. Then we’d have ample power available to create fresh water from oceans of supply, as well as to transport it to locations like Lake Mead. If only.

Reply to  Matthew Schilling
June 26, 2022 1:46 am

I’m wondering if it would be easier to siphon water from the ocean to low lying areas like Death Valley and the Salton Sea and then the water evaporating would come down as rain – without the energy needed to desalinate it directly. Obviously doing it directly would be more reliable and predictable, however.

Reply to  PCman999
June 27, 2022 9:53 am

Pumping energy. Just pump a lot smaller volume through membranes and you get clean drinking water.

Buck Fiden
June 26, 2022 3:57 am

How low was Lake Mead in the 1920s?

Bill E
Reply to  Buck Fiden
June 26, 2022 6:20 pm

There was no Lake Mead before Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s.

June 26, 2022 6:28 am

What amazes me is all of these phony “environmentalists” using CO2 to destroy the Environment they claim they are trying to protect. And this Bovine Excrement has been going on for over 85 years. Look at Google Maps and zoom into the northern part of the Gulf of California. Where is the Colorado river outflowing into the gulf? It Doesn’t! This has to be the greatest, worst, unmitigated, and a hundred more adjectives [not printable] that humankind has perpetrated upon Nature and no one cares! What does the evaporating water do to the Environment and Climate? Where is the environmental analysis report.

Steve Oregon
June 26, 2022 9:30 am

Lake Mead is heavily impacted by upstream Lake Powell.
“In 1965, the last time the lake shrank below elevation 1,100, much of the Colorado’s flow was being used to fill Lake Powell for the first time.”
2009 Story

But also
The 1965 Reservoir Equalization and Channel Cleaning FloodsThe 1965 floods were designed to raise the elevation of Lake Mead reservoir and to scour the reach immediately below Glen Canyon Dam in order to increase the efficiency of the power plant at the dam, and were referred to informally by Bureau of Reclamation engineers as “channel cleaning flows” During these 3 months of high discharge, approximately 5.0 million tons of fine sediment (that is, sand and finer material) were scoured from Glen Canyon between the dam and Lees Ferry (computed on the basis of the USGS daily suspended-sediment data from the Lees Ferry gaging station;

June 26, 2022 11:37 am

Why does the Data end at 2010?

June 27, 2022 6:26 am

Hoover Dam was built to alleviate droughts and floods. Does anyone have a long term drought-flood graph of the southwest? I read there was a severe drought around 1900. Why not build a nuclear power station near Vegas to replace the water lost to power generation? The frid is already in place, and the military owns much of Nevada and surrounding.

June 27, 2022 9:39 am

La Nina year. Next El Nino, and California reservoirs will go back to 100%, just like last time. And as you can see in the graph Lake Mead will also go back up, but it won’t be enough.

Basically water usage now exceeds the decadal average inflow. That’s the problem of moving people to the desert.

Rich Lentz
Reply to  JamesD
June 27, 2022 12:35 pm

I remember getting a deed to land in a cereal box back in the 50’s, for get the state. Looked very “Official.”

June 27, 2022 2:40 pm

And yet Lake Mohave and Havasu look OK

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