Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead Hits Lowest Water Level Since 1930s

The reservoir generates electricity and supplies water to about 25 million people across tribal lands, farms and major cities

Lake Mead
Lake Mead generates electricity and supplies water to 25 million people in Western United States. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Lake Mead hit record-low water levels last week, highlighting the severe drought sweeping through the western United States, report Reuters’ Daniel Trotta and Andrea Januta.

Formed by damming the Colorado River, the body of water is technically a reservoir of the Hoover Dam. As of last week, the reservoir is just 200 feet above “dead pool” level, the point in which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. A white “bathtub ring” on the lake’s shores marks how much water has retreated over time. At only 36 percent of full capacity, the water level is decreasing at a faster rate than previously projected, reports Ian James for Arizona Republic.

Constructed in 1937, Lake Mead is one of the largest human-made lakes in the world, covering up to 248 square miles when full, reports Matthew Cappucci for the Washington Post. The reservoir is considered at full capacity when water rises to 1,219.6 feet above sea level, but it’s able to hold a maximum of 1,229 feet of water. In 1983, the lake reached its highest recorded water level at 1,225 feet.

Since 2000, the water level has dropped 140 feet, Reuters reports. The previous record its low water level was 1,071.6 feet in 2016. Now, the lake has ducked just below that level at 1,071.56 feet. Researchers expect the water will continue receding for at least the next two years.

“It’s frightening that it's happening so quickly,” water policy expert Felicia Marcus, who is currently a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, tells the Arizona Republic. “It's past yellow alert. It's the red alert,”

Hoover Dam
Since its highest water level in 1983, Lake Mead's water level has dropped more than 150 feet. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

The federal government is planning to declare an official water shortage at Lake Mead in August, which will result in large water cuts for Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Lake Mead generates electricity and supplies water to about 25 million people across tribal lands, farms and major cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Las Vegas obtains about 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead, according to the Post.

At least 4.5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border use water from the Colorado River. About 70 percent of the water supports agriculture, much of which is used to grow the country’s winter vegetables.

"We're just desperately looking to the forecast to see when the monsoon might show up,” says Michael Crimmins, a University of Arizona climate scientist, in Reuters.

This drought is part of the larger, climate change-induced megadrought affecting water resources and fueling wildfires. In 2020, over five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington burned due to hot and dry conditions. More water cuts will ensue if the reservoir continues to lower.

Representatives from the seven Western states reliant on the Colorado River signed the Drought Contingency Plan two years ago. In doing so, they pledged to potentially cut water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and California from Lake Mead until 2026. This action will hopefully reduce risk of Lake Mead’s water level further dropping.

“We have to get off our butts and go faster on all of it,” says Marcus in USA Today. “We know what to do. We just have to turn up the volume.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.