LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Lake Mead is still filling up, now at about one-third of capacity despite punishing heat along the Colorado River over the past few weeks.

The lake is getting about 3 feet deeper every month as the steady flow continues from Lake Powell since late April.

Lake Powell has dropped by almost 5 feet since July 8, but water managers at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation aren’t stopping the increased flow to Lake Mead. Lake Powell filled to about 40% of capacity before spring runoff slowed down. It’s now at about 38.1% full.

Below, graphs show the trends for Lake Mead (left) and Lake Powell so far this year.

Forecasts indicate the Bureau of Reclamation will keep sending water downstream to Lake Mead until the end of September. The lake level, currently at 1,061.25 feet, is expected to increase by 4.3 feet to 1,065.59 feet in September, according to the most recent Reclamation 24-month study.

Lake Mead is 18.36 feet above the level a year ago. And its rise has been dramatic. The graph below shows the rise relative to lake levels since 2018.

Lake-Mead-detail-08042023

Lake Powell is currently at 3,579.78 feet. That’s up 43.88 feet from a year ago.

Lake levels tell the elevation of the surface of the lake, not the depth.

Conserving water

Record snowpack in the Colorado Rockies brought relief amid the megadrought that started in the year 2000. Reservoirs further upstream in the Upper Colorado River Basin have been replenished (89.7% capacity in total).

“So now we cross our fingers and hope the 2023-2024 winter brings us more good fortune — even though we don’t deserve it,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said Thursday.

The shoreline changes as water recedes at Lake Mead in this photo from early February, 2023. (Duncan Phenix / KLAS)
The shoreline changes as water recedes at Lake Mead in this photo from early February, 2023. (Duncan Phenix / KLAS)

Roerink has been adamant that the government must get ahead of the drought and take bolder action on water waste. New charges and attempts to curtail residential water use in Las Vegas have run into pushback, but officials say they are working.

“Since implementing the excessive use charge in January, we have seen water use amongst our highest residential water users decrease by about 20%,” according to Bronson Mack, Las Vegas Valley Water District Outreach Manager.

Southern Nevada uses a small fraction of the Colorado River compared to Arizona and California. But the river supplies 90% of the water used in the Las Vegas Valley. California uses the lion’s share of the water.

August decisions

This month is expected to bring big news on decisions on water allocations for states in the Lower Colorado River Basin — Nevada, Arizona and California. Two years after the federal government declared a water shortage, adjustments are expected.

Months of negotiations followed Reclamation’s command to find a way to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water every year, and the bureau is likely to set a course to achieve that sometime in August. If states — particularly California — are not satisfied with the new direction, litigation could follow. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover once acre in a foot of water — roughly 325,000 gallons. That’s enough to supply two to three single-family residences.)

Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network talks about his biggest concerns for the Colorado River. (KLAS)
Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network. (KLAS)

Conservationists and climate experts agree that there’s simply less water available from the river as the desert Southwest has heated up. Even Reclamation acknowledges that there’s more water allocated than the water that actually exists.

Reclamations Annual Operating Plan (AOP) is being revised, and a document online suggests what’s in store.

“I think the big thing from the AOP and the data that’s likely to be in the next 24-month report is that, despite a good 2022-2023 winter, Mead’s levels will be dropping over the course of the next two years — keeping us in shortage criteria and, basically, waiting for the next crisis,” Roerink said. “We will be in Tier 1 Shortage in 2024 — that is going to be the moral of the story.”

He doesn’t hold out much hope for another record snowpack.

“Without another big winter, we have to wonder if the three-year detente agreed upon in May will be able to keep us afloat until the end of 2026,” Roerink said.