Water Knives in the Near Future — 16 Year Drought Brings Lake Mead To New Record Low

It’s been ridiculously hot along the unstoppable shrinking shoreline at Lake Mead. Over the past four days, highs have peaked at a scorching 109 to 111 F (42 to 44 C). Similar heat blasted all up and down the Colorado River Basin, squeezing moisture out of a key water supply for 25 million people in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

(NASA predicts that 20-30 year droughts in the US West will become 80 percent more likely due to human-forced warming. For Lake Mead, the reality of mega-drought appears to already be settling in.)

But these record hot days are just the most recent of many for the river and its water. For over the past 16 years the Colorado River has been assailed by drought. A new kind of mega-drought that has almost certainly been spurred by a human-forced warming of the world. A condition of endemic drying that will likely continue to worsen for the foreseeable future.

Lake Mead Approaching Mandatory Rationing Levels

1072.24 feet — that’s the water level for Lake Mead as of June 21, 2016. It’s about 3 feet below the 1075 mark breached for the first time in the reservoir’s history last year. And if Lake Mead remains below that line by the end of this year, it will mean mandatory cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s water supply.

That could happen either this year (2016) or next (2017) and will almost certainly happen by 2018. In fact, the US Bureau of Reclamation predicts a 64 percent likelihood that Lake Mead will not only remain below the 1075 foot level by 2019, but that it will plunge to as low as 1025 feet at that time.

Lake Mead Water Levels

(Lake Mead may average near or below the 1075 line requiring mandatory cuts in water supplies to Arizona and Nevada this year. Image source: Lake Mead Water Level.)

This level is only 125 feet above Lake Mead’s dead pool line of 900 feet. And hitting such a low water level would result in mandatory water cuts all up and down the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Mead supplies water to 25 million people in Nevada, Arizona, and California. 19 million of these people reside in California alone. And according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, California retains senior rights to the river’s water supply. What this means is that when there’s a shortage, Nevada and Arizona have to take the first hits. And that’s bad news for the six million people and related industries supported by the river in this region. It means that if the 16 year drought along the Colorado River basin continues — and that will likely be the case due to impacts related to human-caused climate change — then water rationing is almost certain to take effect in Arizona and Nevada over the next few years.

Southwest Becoming Drier

(Weather systems that bring rain to the US Southwest are becoming more rare. Scientific studies indicate that this condition is caused by human forced climate change and will continue to worsen this Century if fossil fuel burning and human based carbon emissions do not halt soon. Image source: Climate Central.)

If the climate change driven drought continues and Bureau of Reclamation forecasts are correct, then hitting 1025 feet at Lake Mead by 2019 to 2022 will result in The Department of the Interior stepping in to take control of Lake Mead’s water management. At that point, all bets are off even for California — which would likely then see a 10 percent reduction in the water provided to it by Lake Mead.

Water Knives in the Hothouse Sun

Scientific studies indicate that factors related to human-caused climate change prevent weather systems bearing precipitation from reaching the US West Coast. This problem is particularly acute for the Southwest, where the most intense drying is expected to occur. In addition, added heat — like the record to near record high temperatures experienced across the Southwest over the past few days — results in greatly increased rates of evaporation. So what rain does fall doesn’t stay in rivers or in the soil as long.

Drought Animation NASA

(If you thought the current drought was bad, then this animation will knock your socks off. Loss of soil moisture for the US is ridiculously extreme under business as usual fossil fuel burning in this NASA projection.)

As you can see in the NASA soil moisture prediction measure above, this added heat due to climate change is expected to make currently bad drought conditions absolutely terrible over the coming decades. NASA notes that reductions in fossil fuel emissions help to blunt the intensity of the coming droughts, but that worsening drought conditions will still occur. Considering the current state of Lake Mead and the Colorado River basin, we are likely to see worsening water cuts to communities across the Southwest as climate change related heat and drought conditions worsen.



US Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Mead Water Data

Climate Central

Lake Mead Water Level

What Lake Mead’s Record Low Means For California

Lake Mead Helps Supply Water to 25 Million People — And it Just Hit a Record Low

The Water Knife

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Leave a comment


  1. Ryan in New England

     /  June 23, 2016

    The animation of projected soil moisture is terrifying. All of Mexico looks like it will be impossible to have agriculture. And the worst conditions spread well into a large part of the U.S. And if you overlay expected population growth, increased water usage and greater consumption in general, things are looking pretty dire in coming decades.

    • – I often check out the COUNTRY or STATE OF ORIGIN labels on the produce at local supermarkets.
      If not from a local source the majority are from So. California – with Mexico next.
      This is NAFTA related, and fossil fuel dependent.

      • Ryan in New England

         /  June 24, 2016

        I do the same, DT 🙂 I like to always buy fruits and veggies that are in season, and not shipped thousands of miles from South America or Asia, so that we can enjoy summer fruit in the middle of Winter. I also garden, and have friends who usually have a surplus from their own gardens, that way I can reduce my dependence as much as possible on the just-in-time food delivery system that depends completely on fossil fuels. From fertilizers, to pesticides, to the tractors that plow and harvest to the trucks, trains and ships that deliver our food, our food supply is dripping with oil, and often literally wrapped in petrochemicals.

      • Agreed. We do have a pretty strong local food movement in Vermont, though–supermarkets are trying to provide local food options.

  2. Cate

     /  June 23, 2016


    Leamington, Ont., Mayor John Paterson is irate after a group of eight U.S. governors voted Tuesday to allow a small Wisconsin town to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan.
    A panel representing governors of the eight states adjoining the Great Lakes unanimously approved a proposal from Waukesha, Wis., which is under a court order to find a solution to radium contamination of its groundwater wells. The city says the project will cost $265 million Cdn for engineering studies, pipelines and other infrastructure.

    “If you open it up to one, how do you then deny it to, let’s say, the State of California, which is in a drought condition,” Paterson said. “If this continues, the Great Lakes won’t be very great anymore. They’ll be gone.

    Paterson said the decision affects communities from Windsor to Montreal, as water flows from Lake Superior down and then east to the Atlantic Ocean.

  3. PlazaRed

     /  June 23, 2016

    Thank you for a very interesting blog subject.
    One thing that must be held in mind with the 900 feet dead pool situation, its not the same having 150 feet at the bottom level of a dam as when its full. Hence the amount of water in the lower parts of the dam will be only a very small fraction of the full amount.
    Also its very interesting to see the chart of projected soil moisture levels. The fact that we have just come out of a very strong El Nino season is a good indicator of how much more rain is needed beyond what has been accumulated.
    With the very high heat levels so early in the year a lot of evaporation will also becoming a major problem. Add to this possible reduced snow levels and the water scenario goes from bad to worse.

  4. Michael Brackney

     /  June 23, 2016

    Robert, Dude!, thanks lots for your awesome contributions!


  5. Ryan in New England

     /  June 23, 2016

    India is bringing millions out of poverty by providing access to financing so they can obtain solar power and finally have electricity. This is great because this population will never be tied to the grid, and ultimately fossil fuel dependent. They jump right over that “stage” and go straight to a renewable and more sustainable energy consumer.


    • This is great news, Ryan. Puts a big dent in BAU emissions track if it takes hold strongly. India’s on the front lines of climate change. So they’d be wise to mitigate as rapidly as possible with policies like these.

  6. Jay M

     /  June 24, 2016

    Pretty clear view of the moisture development in Mali/Algeria is generating clouds that then spiral over the mediterranean looks like southeast Italy

    • Jay M

       /  June 24, 2016

      I guess there was a line of storms over GB
      hard to keep up

  7. Rain tends to run off of very dry soil – carrying sediment into the nearest river, where it settles behind the first dam. Thus, when we need them the most, the dam are filling up with sediment.

  8. Reply
    • redskylite

       /  June 24, 2016

      Thanks for sharing that bit of info, good to see that innovations are in progress to tackle and reduce transport’s share of emissions. The same technology is under construction near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.


      • Holy range extenders batman. Just set 10-20 miles up of these babies every 80-100 miles or so and you can have them recharge battery operated trucks. With fast passes, you can handle the recharge fees.

    • Seeing this is kind of a shock to the system. Makes you wonder why we haven’t been doing something like this all along. As noted before, this would be a great way to recharge electric truck batteries and extend their range.

    • I mean, with just a little bit of infrastructure electric trucks and buses suddenly become very long range (effectively unlimited with enough coverage). Another way for the EV to beat out the ICE.

    • Interesting design, I think. It looks like the wires just lie on top of the truck electric contacts.

      So there is no pulley arrangement, the truck electric contacts just rub against the bottom of the electric supply cables.

      Might work really well with carbon fiber composite flywheel energy storage. That way the flywheels could be spun up quickly. If that was the case, you might only need a mile or two of electric roadway every fifty miles, at a guess.

      The formula 1 race car teams have come up with some really great composite flywheel designs:


      The advantage over batteries would be more rapid charging, I think.

      • By the way, they generally design these flywheels in pairs, counter-rotating, so that the forces when charging and discharging even out. I think they also put these in gimbals, to avoid forces on the vehicle when the vehicle is turning. The rapid prototyping operations these racing teams employ have cranked out some great designs for all this stuff in a short time, and a lot of it has been tested under racing conditions.

      • Suggestion-

        Support the charging cables with support cables like a suspension bridge. Make the charging sections of the roadway really level and make the power cables semi-rigid, like a conductive metal tube. This would keep the distance from the truck to the power cable constant, and cut down on the noise and “chatter” from the truck contacts sliding against the power cables.

        With vehicles guided by buried wires in the roadway, the charging becomes easier, I think.

    • Ryan in New England

       /  June 24, 2016

      This is awesome! If there was an electrical charging section of highway every hundred miles or so we could have unlimited range for electric vehicles in no time at all. There really is no reason for us to be burning fossil fuels, at least not in the amounts we currently do. Our progeny will curse our inaction, and tell tales of the evil men that destroyed the biosphere and their future.

    • It’s also possible to charge electric vehicles by electromagnetic induction from power cables buried under the roadway:


      This gets rid of the overhead wires and vehicle contacts. Dunno the efficiency – probably pretty high.

    • Interesting and depressing to see all the effort going into reinventing the train.

      • It’s more like a street car/truck hybrid. Maybe depressing to those who support fossil fuel interests. I’d call this a resiliency/sustainability innovation. If you’re going to have roads, you may as well make trucking more sustainable.

        • I meant that comment in terms of a sunk-cost fallacy mindset. Trucks are inherently less efficient than trains, but that’s what we built, so we’ll keep doing that. I suppose it’s an improvement, but ending the consumer economy is more along what we need to be doing to have a survivable future. I don’t think we’ll need that many trucks in that case.

      • And not to quibble at all, Robert. 🙂 Thank you for the invaluable work you’re doing. I don’t see this stuff anywhere else.

  9. – China – Tornado – Extensive damage

  10. labmonkey2

     /  June 24, 2016

    It’s as if the world, our Mother Earth, is attempting to eradicate the source of its ‘loss of equilibrium’ by all means available. From the huge storm systems, droughts, and lightening storms – to the tiny algae. This is not good news for what’s left of the arctic –

    The Arctic really has everything going against it. If we burn all our fossil fuel reserves it will warm by up to 20°C (36°F) – twice the rate the rest of the planet is warming, on average. Ocean currents are preferentially taking the warmest water directly towards it, and a process known as Arctic Amplification is causing sea ice, snow and ice caps to melt there at truly unprecedented rates, and earlier than ever before.
    A new study in Nature Communications, sadly, has yet more bad news for the northern reaches of our planet. All across the world, there are certain species of algae that thrive in snow, from the icy realms of Greenland and the Antarctic to the tops of the European and Japanese Alps. These green algae actually take on a red hue, as does the snow they’re residing in. This may look quite beautiful, but it actually dramatically reduces the reflectivity – or “albedo” – of the snow or ice.


  11. Mark from OZ

     /  June 24, 2016

    In CA’s Sierra counties, since Oct 2015, the death toll on the trees has accelerated to over 4500 trees PER HOUR! (26mil in 8 months). Drought, heat, pine beetles combined are overwhelming these life forms. The images that chronicle this death are beyond ‘breathtaking’ and what it is forecasting to bring is dire.


  12. mlparrish

     /  June 24, 2016

    On a lighter note:
    Caribbean Sea acts like a whistle and can be ‘heard’ from space. June 21, 2016
    University of Liverpool.

  13. Andy in SD

     /  June 24, 2016

    Hence the discussion regarding emptying Lake Powell into Lake Mead (yes, close down Glen Canyon Dam).

    Lake Powell has a lower outflow than inflow, in other words more water evaporates off of the lake and seeps out than arrives. Lake Powell is a net loss in this situation.

    In the 60’s, 70’s it was a net gain as it was extra storage for Lake Mead.

    Also, by dumping one into the other, the level of Lake Mead can be bumped above 1075 and buy another year or 2. At the minimum they may get past Jan 1, 2017 (the official date when 1075 triggers reductions). If it drops 3 days later, they’ve still averted the reduction.

    Watch towards the end of the year, if it occurs it will likely be at that time. And it will simply be a hail Mary stunt to avoid reductions. Glen Canyon may not get decommissioned, but it contents may be quietly transferred down stream.

    • Powell hasn’t been hit quite as hard by drought. But that situation is likely to change. The net loss so far this year from the two sources combined is about 5.5 million acre-feet. I agree, they might stretch the system for a few years. But the up river states need to be willing to see shortage years advance for them. I see plans in California to try to catch 300,000 acre feet of rainwater each year. Wonder if they’ll figure out how to get lithium and salt harvesting from desalination as well as make that process less harmful (intake/outlet).

    • – I think it likely that any decision would have to factor in the coal fired Navajo Generating Station in Page, AZ that uses enormous amounts of Lake Powell’s water for cooling.

      The power plant is served by coal mined at Peabody Western Coal Company’s Kayenta Mine near Kayenta, Arizona and hauled by the Black Mesa and Lake Powell railroad. The Kayenta mine ships about 8 million tons of coal each year to the power plant, which uses up to 25,000 tons of coal per day when all units are fully running. Each year the plant also uses nearly 8 billion gallons of water from Lake Powell for cooling.[3]


  14. USA – Dry California – Kern County

    socalfirephoto.com ‏@SoCalFirePhoto 1h1 hour ago

    Enroute to the #ErskineFire smoke very visible from Mohave on the 14

  15. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    West Virginia hit hard with ridiculous rain today with deaths of at least one toddler and an adult. Hell or High Water.

    • Greg

       /  June 24, 2016

      These images starting to look familiar. Over 40 counties declared flood emergencies. Where are the weather warnings before these events!?

  16. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    Robert, another great piece but I have to lighten up and now read Paolo Bacigalupi’s other less known work than Water Knives:

  17. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    A thought about another probable future: Eventually, the entire built environment of human civilization will become one giant energy harvester and manager. The power system will not be something overlaid onto infrastructure but something that is part and parcel of infrastructure, something infrastructure just does, automatically.

  18. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    And for some inspiration. A short film about a blind man and an armless friend who together have planted 10,000 trees in China.“For normal healthy people you can achieve [this] by sweating,” Haixia told The Huffington Post. “But for the two of us, handicapped, it takes blood and tears.”

  19. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    Thousands Of Cities From Six Continents Just Agreed To Work On Climate Change. This group. The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy unifies 7,100 cities encompassing more than half a billion people, the group said in a statement. Created some six months after the Paris accord, this global alliance aims for greater collaboration between cities and increased funding to support sustainable energy development.

  20. jimmy

     /  June 24, 2016

    On the weather depends the harvest, and on the harvest depends everything else.

    I’m keeping my eye on the weather conditions over America’s Corn Belt.


  21. Genomik

     /  June 24, 2016

    By not factoring true environmental costs, we have for a century degraded the planet in the name of manifest destiny. Been past time to pay the piper, good things to consider in this post.

    • Thanks for posting. Would appreciate seeing an article here on the environmental cost of mining for lithium . . . . is Elon Musk addressing this?

      • So the total supply chain environmental externalities of lithium vs fossil fuels, when taking into account the impact of climate change from fossil fuels, is about 1/100th. In other words, there is a dramatically smaller impact. It’s not a zero impact and it’s an impact that can be mitigated by improving environmental regulations for all mining and industry (as the article above calls for).

        There are currently two kinds of lithium mining. One is wet lithium mining which is pretty water intensive and can result in some chemical effluent (but nothing anywhere near the scale of coal mining, gold mining, copper mining, tar sands, or fracking). And dry lithium mining which is a bit more expensive, but is more an issue of just breaking rocks to get to the lithium. Since very little water and no chemicals are used in the dry lithium extraction process it is an even lower impact than wet extreaction which is a low impact when compared to traditional materials mining and is a much lower impact than the alternatives (fossil fuel/uranium).

        “Back at UTS, Giurco says lithium harvesting has – like any mining – an environmental impact, but a limited one overwhelmingly offset by the potential for lithium-ion batteries to reduce carbon emissions.

        “It is not a process for instance like gold mining where chemicals are being leached [into the ground],” he says. “You have [issues such as] the environmental impact of constantly driving diesel trucks down into the mine, but with electric trucks it would be a different story.”


        Lithium mining is therefore much, much more sustainable than any current traditional fuel or storage source. And the opportunity exists to transfer the efforts of highly destructive coal mining operations to the far less harmful efforts involved in lithium mining.

        I also want to add that there is now a smear campaign afoot to attack electric vehicle funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the Kochs. This campaign, like the earlier Koch-funded campaign against wind energy, aims to exaggerate the environmental impact of what is a far more comparatively clean energy source. If you remember the days when wind farms and solar farms were labeled as ‘bird killers’ despite the fact that buildings and aircraft have a far greater impact, then you should realize that the current campaign is just the same nonsense retreaded with a slightly different messaging angle.

        Sorry to see that Caroline is again vulnerable to this kind of misinformation. But I’m pretty sure that environmentalists willing to do even a slight bit of research can figure out which way is up in just the most recent storm of anti-renewables/anti-sustainability PR.

    • From the article:

      “The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing…

      If you didn’t notice yet: meat and coal are probably the largest offenders. If you look at table 2 again, you can see that cattle ranching in South America carries 18 times a higher environmental cost than all the revenue it brings in. Once you think about this, it is probably less surprising that 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction is fueled by increased animal agriculture…

      So, now that it has become abundantly clear that our current regulatory system is corrupt/deficient, what do we do about it? Well, firstly we need to stop allowing companies to pretend that they are “environmentally responsible” when they are worse behaved than any child you have ever met. If someone came in and destroyed your kitchen to make you a piece of bread with butter, demanded money for it, and then bragged about being a “responsible cook,” it wouldn’t be any less ridiculous.”

  22. Penny Laskey

     /  June 24, 2016

    Greg- that was an amazing vid of the two handicapped Chinese men. Thank you!

  23. wili

     /  June 24, 2016

    Another scary thing about the opening video is that the almost all the rest of the lower 48 end up being as dry or much drier than the current SW is, usually thought of now as the driest part of the country.

  24. Colorado Bob

     /  June 24, 2016

    Kyushu deluge continues, 700,000 people urged to evacuate

    Heavy rain continued to pummel northern Kyushu, including quake-damaged Kumamoto Prefecture, through Thursday, with local governments urging some 703,000 people to evacuate.

    In Hiroshima Prefecture, a 12-meter section of riverbank on the Inokogawa River in the city of Fukuyama collapsed, causing minor injuries to two people. Fukuyama was hit by 148.5 millimeters of rain from midnight through 6 a.m. Thursday. ……………… The weather agency forecast up to 100 millimeters of rainfall in northern Kyushu over a 24-hour period through 6 p.m. Friday, and 200-300 mm over the following 24 hours. According to the agency, 626.5 mm of rain has fallen since Saturday at Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture


  25. Greg

     /  June 24, 2016

    Japan flooding continues in northern Kyushu (thanks CB for earlier alert). I taught English for 2 years in Kyushu. They completely concreted their rivers to increase flow to the sea and reduce flooding but they are losing this battle and I am sure landslides will follow. Over 700,000 evacuated in a relatively rural landscape:

  26. Colorado Bob

     /  June 24, 2016

    The mouth of the Mackenzie River, and the North coast of Alaska

    05:50 UTC

  27. Suzanne

     /  June 24, 2016

    Fallout from Brexit may hurt CC and environmental initiatives:

    This has been one of the big reasons I was concerned about the United Kingdom leaving the EU. I hope I am wrong…but I have a bad feeling that the fallout from Brexit is going to be very bad for many…with a resounding crash in many socio-economic-environmental areas..

  28. Reply
  29. – Marina Fire — Another CA wildfire N of LA NE of Bakersfield.

  30. Reply
  31. climatehawk1

     /  June 24, 2016

    Tweet scheduled.

  32. June

     /  June 24, 2016

    “Forest Fires Can Heat Up the Whole Planet”

    A new NASA study aims to unravel the ways changes in boreal forests affect climate.


  33. danabanana

     /  June 24, 2016

    Not looking good =/

    On a positive note a Spotless Sun. A little more time is most welcome!

    Also check the Noctilucent cloud video at the bottom of the page 🙂

  34. Colorado Bob

     /  June 24, 2016

    West Virginia governor says 14 people dead in flooding


  35. “Sorry to see that Caroline is again vulnerable to this kind of misinformation. But I’m pretty sure that environmentalists willing to do even a slight bit of research can figure out which way is up in just the most recent storm of anti-renewables/anti-sustainability PR.”

    Looks like activist Gabrielle Laffite was taken in by the Koch brothers as well:


    Robert, I asked a question related to environmental impacts of extraction—-mining for dry or wet lithium.

    To imply that some how I’m taken in by the Koch brothers after I’ve devoted most of my life to protecting and restoring ecosytems in the midwest as well as advocating for sustainability, clean energy and social justice is beyond the pale.

    Your response to a fair, reasonable question (in third person no less!) is extremely insensitive, rude and derogatory. As if I’m an idiot or worse, an advocate for tar sands.

    I’m sorry you had to respond this way——most likely knowing I would read your remark. Very disappointing and not constructive to working together to fight climate change.

  1. Global CO2 Spike Spurs Hottest June on Record, Extreme Weather For US | robertscribbler

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