Las Vegas and Clark County in the surrounding area are presently facing a “severe drought”. Although this may sound unfavorable, it is actually two classes lower than the “exceptional drought” the area was in a mere seven months ago. According to the US Drought Monitor, which is responsible for defining these categories and releasing updates every Thursday, there is no worse class.
Unexpected precipitation has helped to mitigate the long-term drought that has taken its toll on the American Southwest for over two decades. (Source: droughtmonitor.unl.edu)
The improvement is a result of several storms from the southern Pacific Ocean that have brought much needed moisture to the region. This has also led to an 8% increase in the Colorado Rockies’ snowpack, bringing it up to a total of 158% of the normal level. As this snowpack is the main source of water for the Colorado River, it is essential to keep it at a high level. The Colorado Headwaters region, the origin of the river, has recorded a snowpack at 134% of the normal level, while the Four Corners region has displayed an impressive 477% of the normal amount.
Taking a Break from the Drought
This is not a lasting solution to the water crisis in the American Southwest, however. Climate experts believe that the megadrought that has been present for the past 23 years is a lasting issue caused by a 20% decrease in the Colorado River’s flow, due to an average temperature increase of 2.5 degrees along the river. This raises evaporation and creates drier soil, which further reduces the amount of water flowing downstream.
The “bathtub ring” of calcium, previously dissolved in the water from the Colorado River, circling Lake Mead marks the maximum capacity of 1,220 feet above sea level, which was last reached in 1999. (Source: LA Times)
Fortunately, the elevated snowpack, which is more than enough to meet the needs of all forty million Colorado River water users for an entire year, has given the region a chance to reset the drought clock before the situation returns to the new normal. This new normal is expected to be a three year below-average snowpack trend, culminating in 2022’s shockingly low 83.9% of normal.
No Relief for Lake Mead
Unfortunately, Lake Mead, which supplies Las Vegas with 90% of its water but is currently only 28% full, will not receive a direct increase in water flow. This is because the plan is to use the water to refill Arizona’s Lake Powell instead. At 22% full, its Glen Canyon Dam is in critical danger of no longer being able to produce hydropower. As a result, its power plant is only producing 60% of the 5B kilowatt-hours it was designed to.
The US Bureau of Reclamation has warned that, in a few years, Lake Mead’s water levels could drop to 895 feet, known as the dead pool. At this point, gravity will no longer allow the water to flow past the dam to points downstream, including California, Arizona, and Mexico. This would also mean that the dam will no longer be able to generate electricity.
The recent influx of moisture from the southern Pacific Ocean has improved the drought situation in the American Southwest, with the Colorado Rockies’ snowpack increasing to 158% of the normal level. Water officials plan to use this water to attempt to set the drought clock back before the situation returns to the new normal. However, Lake Mead will not receive a direct benefit, as the water will be used to refill Arizona’s Lake Powell instead. Despite this, the increased snowpack is a welcome respite and offers hope that the region can find a lasting solution to its water crisis.