Scorched Earth: The repercussions of Lake Mead's water shortage
The Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever Level 1 water shortage condition for Lake Mead earlier this year. Take a look back in this 12 News special.
Editor's note: This story and five-part series on Lake Mead's draining water supply aired in August of this year.
New projections released in September showed there's a chance as high as 66% that water levels at Lake Mead will decline to 1,025 feet by 2025, triggering a Tier 3 Shortage.
By October, updated projections suggested Lake Mead, which is a critical water resource for Arizona, could be sinking closer to a threshold that will trigger additional water cutbacks for the state.
Vice President Kamala Harris toured Lake Mead and surrounding facilities that same month to gauge how the drought has been affecting the lake's water supply.
The repercussions of a draining water supply are immense -- farms are drying up, a once-thriving marina now sits more than a mile from lake water and Arizona's Department of Water Resources is planning water cuts that could impact municipal water supplies as early as 2024.
>> Find full coverage on 12news.com/scorched-earth
The water at Hoover Dam should be near the top of the dam. But the water hasn’t been that high in 40 years.
Decades of drought have dropped the lake level 158 feet, exposing the bathtub ring, the whitewashed section of rock that used to be under the water.
In August, the Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever Level 1 water shortage condition for Lake Mead. It sets off a series of water cuts that take effect in 2022.
12 News, along with sister stations across Western states, set out to understand the dire conditions our states face as drought and wildfire continue to rage.
Chapter 1: 'Critical decisions'
“We’re creeping down there,” Doug Hendrix with the Bureau of Reclamation said about the low lake level. “I wouldn't say we're panicked yet, but we're certainly at a point where we're needing to make critical decisions.”
Now that a shortage has been declared, and all experts agreed it would be, Arizona will see a big cut in the amount of water it gets.
Water is not measured in gallons at this level. It’s measured in something called acre-feet.
That’s the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of land at one foot deep.
Realistically, that’s about 325,853 gallons. It’s also about the amount of water the average family uses in one year.
Now that a shortage has been declared, Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water sometime in 2022. Here's what cutbacks the Bureau of Reclamation has established:
- Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment
- Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment
- Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment
Think of water like money, and the reservoirs are the bank.
We’re making withdrawals consistently, every day. But the deposits are not predictable, so we’ve been overdrawn for years.
“It's really multiple banks and throwing in the Federal Reserve,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said. “I do not think people are seeing how complicated it is”
The Arizona Department of Water Resources has known for years a shortage was coming. The states that depend on the water from the Colorado River have drawn up agreements every few years to try and make it less painful.
Cities and states can also bank their water and keep it in the lake for another year, hoping it will still be there. They can stick water in underground tanks and save it there, and they can also give some away or even sell it to someone else. But Arizona is currently trying to buy.
“The legislature gave me $10 million to potentially buy conserved water,” Buschatke said. “It remains to be seen whether or not we can find water users are willing to do that, given the fact that we're taking a 500,000-acre-foot cut”
Chapter 2: Next level of shortage
The shortage won’t hit the average person yet. The taps will still run and residential pools will still be full.
It’s the next level of shortage, and the next, that could be even worse. Experts expect Tier 3 shortages, which could start to impact municipal water supplies, to be implemented as soon as 2024, unless the drought improves.
But it’s not just water that is affected. Lake Mead also provides the water that runs the hydroelectric power plant inside Hoover Dam.
There are turbines for the Nevada and the Arizona side, and if the water level drops 100 more feet, the dam can’t produce power at all.
Chapter 3: 'Access becomes the hardest thing'
The lake doesn’t just provide water and power, it provides a livelihood for a lot of people.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is routinely one of the world’s top tourist destinations. And Bruce Nelson’s family’s marinas are the primary destination for boaters.
“The lake’s obviously not meant to be full, but it is it is at record lows,” Nelson said.
Nelson knows the lake’s level can rise and fall. To keep up with the levels, the marinas have to be moved farther into the lake or closer to land.
“We're actually scheduled to move this morning,” Bruce said recently, standing on a dock that would shortly be further into the water.
The lake is more than 500 feet deep when it’s full. Even at its historic lows, it’s hundreds of feet deep. But Lake Mead is a flooded canyon. When the water level drops, mountains that were flooded for decades get closer to the surface, becoming boating hazards.
“We have lots of water to go have fun on,” Nelson said. “But access becomes the hardest thing.”
Chapter 4: All but disappeared
An hour and a half down the lake sits a stark example of what happens when that access disappears completely.
Echo Bay used to be an incredibly popular place. There was a marina in the water, a large RV park and a resort sitting just up the boat ramp. It was so popular, it had its own airstrip.
As the story goes, a businessman launching his own website wanted to name it after Echo Bay. But echobay.com was taken, so he shortened it, and eBay was born.
The online auction site is, of course, still around. Echo Bay, however, has all but disappeared.
The water is now a mile or more from the end of the boat ramp. Because of that, the National Park Service couldn’t find anyone willing to run the marina, and it was dismantled in 2013.
The RV park is still in use, although with only a handful of campers. The resort is boarded up and decrepit. Guests haven’t been there in years.
“I have memories of it being very high, down towards where it is now,” Lake Mead park ranger Chelsea Kennedy said.
Ever since she’s worked at lake Mead, there’s been a drought – 22 years worth of drought and counting.
“There's nothing that's going to happen quickly with this situation,” Kennedy said. “it would be Mother Nature over time fixing itself.”
Chapter 5: Reappearing above the surface
At the far end of the lake sits the ruins of St. Thomas, a town that was bought by the federal government when Hoover Dam was built. The feds knew the water would reach far beyond where the town stood, flooding it.
St. Thomas was an old Mormon settlement that grew into a fairly good size town of 500 people. The town had a school, a grocery store, even a good-sized hotel.
When the water came, the residents were forced to pack up and leave. The town was under 60 feet of water when the lake filled.
But only a few years later, in 1947, St Thomas reappeared above the surface.
It’s stayed dry far more often than it’s been underwater ever since. The only thing left are foundations and few ruins sticking up from the grass.
“We spent the past 20 years evolving and learning how to constantly keep up with the evolution of the lake lowering,” Kennedy said.
Which leaves Nelson and his family’s marinas. It costs money to move the marinas. And while the lake is in no danger of drying up, his livelihood depends on the water being there for years to come.
Chapter 6: Bone dry
When the Bureau of Reclamation cuts the water allocation to the Western states in 2022, taps will keep running, but experts say you’ll feel the water shortage in almost every other way.
Nancy Caywood’s farm is bone dry. She grows alfalfa there –or at least she does when she can get water.
“You can feel it crunching below your feet,” Caywood said while walking through a dusty field.
There’s nothing growing at the farm. The canals are dry and haven’t run in months. Monsoon rains aren’t enough to save the crops.
“We got an inch and a half rain out here night before last, and look at this,” Caywood said, kicking up a cloud of dirt.
Like a lot of original farmers, Caywood is locked into contracts signed long before she was born.
“My granddad had to sign an agreement back when he bought this land in the early 1900s, that he would never drill a well and he would pay for two acre-feet of water,” Caywood said. “Our water and our taxes are attached. So if we can't make the water bill, then we can lose our farm.”
That agreement locks Caywood into a no-win situation. Her water company doesn’t have the water, and she can’t get it anywhere else. And without water, nothing grows and nothing sells.
“This is our home,” Caywood said. “We just look at this property and we don't want to lose it.”
“I drove past the canal and it was empty and I burst into tears,” Caywood said, walking near a dry canal. “I just can't believe that we have no water.”
Caywood gets her water from the San Carlos Irrigation – when she gets it at all. Her son farms nearby. He gets his water from Central Arizona Project. It’s water that will most likely evaporate once the shortage is declared. CAP will take the biggest hit. Water officials said two-thirds of the water that goes to agriculture will be cut.
“Agriculture will be impacted,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke said. “There still will be farming, but it will be less and some of them will go back to groundwater.”
And some farms just won’t make it.
“They are not,” Caywood said. “I'm not sure we are. We're trying.”
Without agricultural water, it will cost more to grow things in Arizona. That has a trickle-down effect on the products that are grown in farms like Caywood’s, as well as industries that depend on it, like ranching.
Caywood’s options are limited. Alfalfa takes a lot of water, but she can’t just rip it up and start over. She said there’s no money for that.
“We don't want to have to prepare fields again,” Caywood said. “It takes a lot to prepare fields.”
Some of her neighbors have given up altogether, selling their land to companies that cover them in solar panels.
“Just makes my heart ache to see all these solar panels,” Caywood said, staring at her neighbor’s fields, which are covered in waist-high solar panels.
“We had no idea that we were looking at 20 years, 30 years later and we're still in a drought,” Caywood said
Instead, Caywood Farms is looking at more dry fields and an uncertain future.
Chapter 7: 'Useless turf'
About 30 miles from Lake Mead, Las Vegas is trying a novel water conservation measure that experts say could save them vast amounts of water. And it’s a measure that other Southwestern states could also implement.
“It's a finite resource,” Corey Enus with the Southern Nevada Watter Authority said. “We have to learn how to use it together.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority pushed for, and successfully got passed, a state law outlawing what the state calls “useless turf.”
The state defines useless turf as grass that is planted in medians, along sidewalks, even in front of businesses and office complexes.
Basically, grass that is only ever stepped on by the person who mows it.
And getting rid of it across the entire city of Las Vegas could save Nevada a huge amount of water.
“That 4,000 acres of grass uses about 10% of our Colorado River water,” Enus said. “The Las Vegas Strip, the largest employer in Southern Nevada, uses less than 4% of the water.”
That’s right, the Las Vegas Strip, with its tens of thousands of hotel rooms and man-made lakes equipped with musical fountain shows uses less water than the grass planted on the side of the road.
Water experts like Gary Woodard, who’s done water conservation work for cities across the Southwest, including many in Arizona, believe cutting that useless turf out is an easy way to conserve water.
“It's something that you can do quickly,” Woodard said. “You don't have any big legal or political hurdles.”
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Arizona has some conservation measures in place, but outlawing useless turf is not one of them. Nevada’s water restrictions go even further.
There are times when homeowners are allowed to water, and times when they’re not. New homes can only have grass in a small percentage of their property.
Enus said those conservation measures put Las Vegas in a comfortable position when the water cuts come in 2022.
“We've added 800,000 residents, but we reduced our water use by 23%,” Enus said. “So we're poised to meet our future demands.”
Chapter 8: 'Things occurred more rapidly than we had hoped'
The Southwestern states have cut water usage in past years to try and offset the drought. But it hasn’t been enough in Arizona.
“We had hoped that would buy us time,” Buschatzke said. “But things occurred more rapidly than we had hoped.”
The Colorado River was down 30% in the last year. That’s more than anyone was expecting
“The system will recharge itself,” Hendrix said. “I wouldn't say fairly quickly, but quickly if we have above-average precipitation.”
And that’s what it all comes down to. There’s nothing anyone can do to make it rain more, or make the drought less severe.
Until then, the southwest is looking for water anywhere it can. Officials are even considering a pipeline to bring water from the Missouri River in Montana. They’re also considering a desalinization plant in the Sea of Cortez and making deals with other states. But all of those projects are considered moonshots, potentially unrealistic ideas that may ever happen. If they did, they’re years, or even decades away.
And the drought shows no signs of letting up.
Scorched Earth series
To watch the entire Scorched Earth series head to the 12 News Scorched Earth playlist on YouTube.