Sunday, May 22, 2022

The rise and fall of Lake Mead and Las Vegas

Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border in southwestern USA is, or at least was, the largest man-made reservoir in the USA, and one of the largest in the world. It is, or at least was, 640 km2 (247 m2), and contains, or - you know - 35 million megalitres (28 million acre-feet) of water. By damming the Colorado River (as in: the Grand Canyon), Lake Mead provides essential water for the desert states of Nevada, Arizona and California, and even parts of Mexico, making life livable for about 25 million people, and irrigating many, many square kilometers of farmland, not to mention providing essential power from the huge Hoover Dam hydro-electricity plant.

Perhaps most importantly, it is just 40 km (24 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada's fabulous oasis of commercial excess, the self-styled Entertainment Capital of the World, which quite literally would not be there were it not for Lake Mead. The city of Las Vegas was technically founded in 1905, but it would never have thrived, or even survived, without the construction of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead in the 1930s. Las Vegas' 2 million-plus inhabitants rely completely on Lake Mead for their water. All those fountains, reflecting ponds and water features on The Strip, all those flashing lights, animatronics and air-conditioned hotels? Yup, Lake Mead. 

But Lake Mead is not what it was. The whole of the American Southwest has been experiencing unprecedented droughts for years now, the most severe megadrought in 1,200 years according to Smithsonian Magazine. The drought began in 2000, and is not expected to abate until at least 2030, if then. The lake is currently at barely above 30% of historic levels, at least 53 m (175 feet) lower than normal. 

As the water level falls, some rather embarrassing secrets are surfacing for the first time since the 1970s, including the reservoir's original intake valve, sunken boats, and multiple dead bodies (probably from Las Vegas' thriving mob scene). Think about that next time you are drinking Sin City's water!

Engineers are already releasing less water into the reservoir because of the drought. At last count, lake levels had fallen to 1,050 feet, with no end in sight. If they fall below 290 m (950 feet), the dam's turbines will cease to function, so they are walking a fine line. Electricity production is already down by about a third

If there are still any climate deniers in the southwestern USA - and I'm just sure there are, there of all places - they might just be re-thinking their principles right about now. Not that they would admit it, of course.

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