Century of Water Shortage Ahead? Lake Mead Drops Below Rationing Line For First Time in Its History.

1075 feet. That’s the water level Lake Mead must stay above before mandatory multi-state water rationing goes into effect. A level just 25 feet above the highest intake pipe used to supply cities across the Desert Southwest. Last night water levels at the key national water storage facility fell below that hard line to 1074.99 feet — a record low never before seen in all of its history.

lake meade water levels

(Lake Meade water levels hit below the 1075 hard line yesterday, the lowest level ever recorded. Image source: Lake Mead Water Data.)

If water levels remain below the 1075 foot mark through January of 2016, then a multi-state rationing will go into effect (with most acute impacts for Arizona and Nevada). A rationing that will have serious consequences for desert cities across the Southwest, cities like Las Vegas which rely on Lake Mead for so much of their water.

Despite Lake Mead hitting the 1075 hard line, it appears that rationing may be forestalled through 2016. It’s a silver lining of all the severe summer storms that have rolled through the Colorado River Basin this spring and summer — pumping up water flows to Lake Mead and Lake Powell. A flush of much needed moisture that will, hopefully, prevent water rationing from going into effect during 2016. But prospects for the future, despite this temporary respite, are starting to look a bit grim.

Risk of Future Megadrought

The trend set in place by a human-forced warming of the Desert Southwest has resulted in an increasing number of dry years. The added heat forces water to evaporate more rapidly. So even when it does rain an average amount, moisture levels still fall. The result is not only an increase in single year droughts, but an increased risk of decadal droughts (called megadroughts).

As the years progress and more of the impacts of human-forced global warming become apparent, the drought impacts and severe drought risks are only expected to rise. For according to a recent Cornell University report (2014) the chance of a 10 year drought for the US Southwest under a moderate warming scenario (RCP 4.5) is 50% this century (greater for states like Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada — see graphic below). The chances of a 30 year drought range from 20-50 percent depending on the severity of the human greenhouse gas emission.

Megadrought risk

(Risk of an individual State experiencing a 10 year or longer drought as a result of global warming due to human fossil fuel emissions over the course of the next century. Note that Lake Meade watershed states show the highest risk for periods of terrible drying. Image source: Southwest May Face Megadrought this Century.)

Toby Ault, lead author of last year’s Cornell Paper noted:

“For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions.”

For reference, the current historic California drought is, so far, a four-year affair. So, as difficult and damaging as that drought has been, a 10 year or a thirty year drought may be seem comparatively unimaginable by today’s standards. In other words, though it’s been rather dry for the U.S. West over the past 15 years, an impact likely already worsened by human-caused climate change, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Early Warning and A Call For Necessary Action

In addition to increasing drying and severe drought risks, growing cities throughout the U.S. West have put greater and greater strains on water stores like Lake Mead. As a result of the combined human-forced drought and increased water consumption, levels at Lake Mead have been dropping since 1999. Back then, water levels averaged around 1200 feet. And since that time we’ve seen an average 8 foot drop each year.

It’s a trend that, unless it changes, will almost certainly mean water rationing in 2017, 2018 or 2019, if not 2016.  Water resource officials are notably concerned. Water-policy manager Drew Beckwith of Western Resource Advocates noted in USA TODAY:

“This is the check-engine light. It really does (make critical) the fact that we have to start changing.”

And that’s absolutely true. We need to change how we manage and use water in the US Southwest and we need to do absolutely everything we can to prevent as much future warming as possible to reduce the risk and intensity of the future megadroughts that are a likely upshot of human-forced warming. The crossing of the 1075 line for Lake Mead yesterday should thus be viewed as a climate change shot across the bow. If we want to husband our resources wisely, we need to look both toward conservation and toward making certain conditions do not spiral beyond even the ability of responsible resource management to make a difference. That’s the basic lesson of climate change — there are simply some conditions that are impossible to adapt to. And the goal of every rational person should be to do everything possible to prevent and reduce the intensity of those conditions. The water security of the U.S. Southwest depends on it.

Links:

Lake Mead Water Data

Lake Mead Sinks to Record Low Risking Water Shortage

Water Level in Lake Mead Drops to Warning Mark

Southwest May Face Megadrought This Century

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

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49 Comments

  1. climatehawk1

     /  June 24, 2015

    Tweet scheduled.

    Reply
  2. I learnt to scuba dive in lake mead (seriously). I could now walk on the bottom that was the limit of our 60ft dive.

    Reply
  3. Vic

     /  June 25, 2015

    In the first successful case of its kind, a judge in the Hague has ruled that the Dutch government’s stance on climate change is illegal and has ordered them to take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a hefty 25% within five years.

    Lawyers say the precedent it sets could trigger similar cases all around the world. Already, in Belgium, 8, 000 citizens are preparing for a similar court case, with others pointing to another possible lawsuit in Norway. Although the case is only binding within the Netherlands, lawyers say that it will inspire lawyers and judges considering similar cases in many other countries.

    “It is remarkable,” said James Thornton, chief executive of environmental law organisation ClientEarth. “A major sophisticated European court has broken through a political and psychological threshold. For the first time a court has ordered the government to protect its citizens from climate change.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/24/hague-climate-change-judgement-could-inspire-a-global-civil-movement

    Reply
    • That is amazingly good news, Vic. Let’s get the cases rolling in the states.

      Reply
    • Vic

       /  June 25, 2015

      “…Governments themselves have now become a danger to society” says Roger Cox, the Dutch attorney who was a driving force behind this landmark decision in the Hague.

      His TEDx talk from last year outlines his call for a revolution where citizens sue their governments for failing to protect them from climate change. What changed yesterday is that we now have a legal precedent to help bolster subsequent similar actions.

      http://www.revolutionjustified.org/tedx-flanders

      Reply
  4. – Related:

    Lake Mead watch: As levels fall, hydropower dips
    Why Southwest utilities are starting to sweat.
    ,,,
    That’s because a shallower reservoir means less water pressure against the turbines, generating less electricity. A recent report by graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of California, Santa Barbara examines the economic and physical impacts as Lake Mead’s elevation falls: With each 25-foot drop, total energy costs increase by roughly 100 percent, compared to a full reservoir. The costs paid by contractors for hydropower double at 1,075 feet, triple at 1,050 feet, quadruple at 1,025 feet. At 895 feet, the turbines won’t run, a level they call “dead-pool.”

    https://www.hcn.org/articles/as-reservoirs-fall-hydropower-at-risk

    Reply
    • They really need to work to change that 8 foot per year average loss rate. Storms likely on the way this year should help to add a little more wiggle room, but the long term future looks pretty rough with increasing water use and climate change likely to serve up worsening droughts.

      Reply
  5. wili

     /  June 25, 2015

    How about getting rid of: pools, golf courses, carwashes, lawns, most meat and dairy production, fracking, flush toilets, and a lot of the stupid, wasteful, unneeded ways we overuse our precious water?

    Reply
    • I think those are some good mitigations. Do most of it or all and there might be a decent amount of flex to deal with emergent problems. Why can’t we all be so wise?

      Reply
    • OT: Are you catching any of this 1,000 mile long WWB in the Western Pacific? Third warm Kelvin Wave locking in by all appearances. Chances for strong to monstrous El Niño just went up another notch.

      Reply
  6. Study: Weather patterns that bring heatwaves happening more

    he type of summer weather pattern with a northeastern North American high pressure system that keeps it hotter than normal in the eastern U.S. used to happen about 18 days a summer in the early 1980s. It now occurs about 26 days a summer, the study found.
    “There are more of them each summer and on average they are lasting longer and the longest are lasting longer,” Horton said.

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-06-weather-patterns-heatwaves.html#jCp

    Reply
  7. Andy in San Diego

     /  June 25, 2015

    Karachi death toll passed 1000. Seems to be in the range of 100+ per day now. Long term dehydration and effects on elderly / sick kicking in.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/world/asia/karachi-pakistan-heat-wave-deaths.html?_r=0

    Reply
    • I’ve received a couple of emails making unconfirmed claims that the totals may be as high as twice that. It’s rough days for Sindh, in any case. Even though it’s slightly cooler now. They still wait for the rains.

      Reply
  8. Andy in San Diego

     /  June 25, 2015

    Thailand drought.

    500 wells being drilled to get water to help farmers / people. This is stated to give 1 year breathing room in some areas. Rice farmers are being urged to divest to other crops or delay their crops.

    http://news.thaivisa.com/thailand/thai-govt-seeks-solutions-to-torrid-drought/101353/

    Reply
    • I’ve got sea surface temps near the Philippines in the range of 34 C. I wonder if an Asian heatwave is building for some regions.

      Reply
  9. entropicman

     /  June 25, 2015

    Sabesq are presenting Sao Paulo Cantareira data in a new format.

    Is this improved transparency or obfuscation?

    Reply
    • Andy in San Diego

       /  June 25, 2015

      I think they are trying to report the level with more transparency. They used to give the value as one number (total). Now they added that diagram and report total (biggest number) and in relation to dead pool (red negative).

      The company came under fire 1/2 year ago due to this. The govt has also jumped in due to inefficiency & incompetence on the part pf Sabesq.

      The numbers are not moving fast, since the water is only available 2 days a week.

      Reply
      • This is basically what you’d expect from a regime of strict rationing and a more focused response to eliminate leakage and other inefficiencies. They did start out pretty amazingly far behind the 8-ball, though. Even in a relatively mild scenario, they are looking at two years before any shot at returning to something resembling normalcy.

        Reply
    • Greg

       /  June 25, 2015

      This company is reprehensible and may just be looted at some point when it all falls apart. Their latest to deal with their seeming collapse towards bankruptcy due to the drought and mismanagement is to put off any sewer work for several months. The locals say they are “s——- in their beds” now.

      http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=pt&u=http://epocanegocios.globo.com/Informacao/Dilemas/noticia/2015/06/sabesp-suspende-obras-de-tratamento-e-coleta-de-esgoto-por-120-dias.html&prev=search

      Reply
      • What surprises me most is a lack of organization on the part of citizens of Sao Paulo to protest the poor response and to demand that more resources and responsible management be pointed at the crisis. Of course, this isn’t residents which are at fault. But at some point citizens need to take responsible action to set failures aright and to put in place practices that will lead toward long-term solutions. A good start would be a list of demands for resignations by officials, a list of replacements, and a list of appropriate actions to be taken.

        It’s also mind-boggling that the larger Brazil government hasn’t stepped in and put more resources toward dealing with the crisis while also working to root out corruption and failed management on down the line. It’s not as if their largest state isn’t teetering on the brink of severe social and economic disruption. It’s not as if military planners aren’t being forced to consider the very real possibility of mass migration. It’s just surprising to me that from top to bottom, there’s been so little in the way of calling matters to accounts.

        Reply
      • Greg

         /  June 25, 2015

        Robert, in answer to the citizens organizing. They have so many hurdles in regards to getting truthful information and organizing but here is a new way they are doing it since June 18th, an online means, soon to include a mobile app that provides citizen an input for real data for a map to present on a weekly basis to the government on the crisis:

        http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=pt&u=http://www.redebrasilatual.com.br/ambiente/2015/06/alianca-pela-agua-vai-monitorar-falta-de-agua-e-cobrar-acoes-da-sabesp-8660.html&prev=search

        Reply
    • Greg

       /  June 25, 2015

      The crisis there continues and there has been a deafening silence since the army had their emergency meeting regarding the crisis back in May. When truth is buried it eventually wells up and explodes: “It was practically vetoed the use of terms such as “dead volume,” “rationing”, “water crisis”, “lack of rain” and instead use respectively the terms “technical reserve”, “management of water availability,” “lack targeting “or” aim of St. Peter. ”
      http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=pt&u=http://marcozero.org/o-vocabulario-proibido-da-crise-da-agua/&prev=search

      Reply
  10. Andy in San Diego

     /  June 25, 2015
    Reply
  11. Greg

     /  June 25, 2015

    The Washington Post has a very well done new pieceby Glen Kessler that roasts Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee for spreading the 1970’s cooling meme in his interview this week. It has a comprehensive analysis of the whole affair and puts that zombie back in the ground. Nicely done. “Huckabee is grasping at incorrect media reporting in order to make a ridiculous point…Huckabee earns Four Pinocchios.

    “http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/06/25/huckabees-claim-that-global-freezing-theories-from-the-1970s-shows-the-science-is-not-as-settled-on-climate-change/?hpid=z5

    A good opportunity to add your support in the comments section.

    Reply
  12. Colorado Bob

     /  June 25, 2015

    Drought, fire risks causing insurance rate spikes

    Now, his homeowners insurance nearly tripled since 2013.

    Cunningham’s annual premium shot up from $735 in 2013 to over $1,600 last year.

    This year Liberty Mutual said it wouldn’t be renewing his policy. He had to find another insurer and now pays $1,900 dollars a year to a foreign company known for high premiums and exclusive clients. “Now I’m going through a company that we’ve all heard of, Lloyds of London. I have to go all the way to London to get insurance here?,” Cunningham said.

    It’s not just Cunningham though, and it’s not just this part of the state. The California Department of Insurance said people in fire-prone areas across the state were seeing higher premiums. Historically, the department said, drought conditions raise the risk of fire and in turn the force up premiums homeowners pay for insurance. Spokesperson Nancy Kincaid said, “Wildfire season used to just be three months a year. It’s now 365, year round. This February we saw a big fire where 40 homes were lost.”

    Link

    Reply
  13. Colorado Bob

     /  June 25, 2015

    Heat index values reported at 10 a.m. GMT on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. In Sukkur, Pakistan, the combination of a 111-degree air temperature and an 81-degree dewpoint made it feel like 137 degrees Fahrenheit (58 degrees Celsius).

    http://www.wunderground.com/news/pakistan-heat-wave-latest-news

    Reply
  14. Colorado Bob

     /  June 25, 2015

    Western Heat Wave Intensifies Friday; May Break June, All-Time Records This Weekend Into Early July (FORECAST)

    In particular, parts of the Columbia Basin and lower Snake River Valley may surge above 110 degrees. This includes cities such as Yakima, Kennewick and Walla Walla in Washington as well as Lewiston, Idaho.

    Link

    Reply
    • 110 in Walla Walla? Now that does sound like a sci-fi fossil fueled distopia. We’re living it… Hopefully we can prevent it from getting too much worse.

      Reply
  15. Colorado Bob

     /  June 25, 2015

    Portugal registers 9,000 forest fires in first half of 2015

    The GNR has registered 8,955 fires by June 23, nearly double of that in the corresponding period last year.

    http://www.globalpost.com/article/6593535/2015/06/24/portugal-registers-9000-forest-fires-first-half-2015

    Reply
    • Colorado Bob

       /  June 25, 2015

      Portugal forest fires in 2015 consume almost three times area of year earlier

      The 14,971 hectares burned from January through mid-June compares with 5,525 hectares in the same period in 2014.

      Compared with the decade to 2014, this year has seen 16% more incidents than the annual average, with 37% more area burned than the average. Only in 2005, 2009 and 2012 were the areas burned greater than so far this year.

      Link

      Reply
  16. – OK, we have busy times here.
    I would wipe my brow of fossil fuel climate sweat but that effort would make for more sweat.
    Oh well, I had feeling 2015 would be rather brisk with activity.🙂

    – For those PNW people, I came across Cliff Mass Weather Blog with lots of PNW climate info. It looks pretty good.

    http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2015/06/june-without-gloom.html

    Reply
  17. Colorado Bob

     /  June 26, 2015

    Dear RS –

    I need a post about Senator “Snowballl” , and the thousands of people dying in South Asia. I need a club to beat his head to a bloody pulp.

    Reply
  18. Colorado Bob

     /  June 26, 2015

    Dear RS –

    I’m at end of the world .

    Reply

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