LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — With almost 100,000 followers on TikTok a man who lives in Washington state has managed to catch the attention of almost 2 million people who have watched him explain what he says is a worst-case scenario involving Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam, and the Colorado River.
It wasn’t long ago someone like Adam Ratliff — known online as Armchair Engineer — would have had only family, friends, and co-workers to share his ideas with. But now social media has given Ratliff a voice that is heard around the world about a problem he sees possibly happening in the near future here in southern Nevada and the southwest.
About two weeks ago Ratliff published a TikTok video titled, “What happens when Lake Mead hits deadpool?” The video is not even four minutes long and in it, he lays out the scenario that if Lake Mead were to drop below 895 feet above sea level (approx. 152 feet lower than today) “all irrigators and cities that rely on the lower Colorado River will lose access to their water. And it will all go down in approximately 37 days!”
Ratliff admits he is “an engineer in name only” but said he has been around civil engineering his whole life and works as a communication consultant for engineers and engineering companies. He started making his short videos in 2015 but really began gaining attention during the pandemic.
In his video about Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam, and the lower Colorado River, Ratliff lays out the admittedly unlikely scenario that deadpool at the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead happens at a single moment in time — not gradually — and that “all downstream entities are taking their 100% allotment.”
“When that happens, flows out of Davis Dam slows to a trickle,” Ratliff said in his TikTok video. “Within an hour or so this stretch of river past Laughlin, Nevada goes dry. As the last of the water flows into Lake Havasu the water behind Parker Dam drops quickly and within a few hours drys out the pumps on the Colorado River Aqueduct.”
Ratliff is using the following calculation for this scenario:
Lake Mojave (below the Hoover Dam) is filled up because of the Davis Dam. He said there are approximately 21,455 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water released from the Davis Dam. He then calculates that if Lake Mojave holds 1,592,300 acre-feet of water it would take 37.42 days to drain Lake Mojave — again assuming no additional water is coming into the system through, around, or under the Hoover Dam.
“The greater Los Angeles area has now lost 2/3 of its water supply. A few hours later the exact same thing happens to the Central Arizona Project,” Ratliff said in his video. “Irrigation shuts down within days, and within a few weeks, the people of Phoenix are not able to flush their toilets. Same with Tucson a few weeks after that. The Palo Verde irrigators have had written down water rights since 1879 but all of this will also go dry along with the All-American Canal and every downstream branch canal. Pretty much every green thing in all of Imperial County.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) controls all of the water flow and storage in the Colorado River Basin. It also enforces and manages what is known as the ‘Law of the River‘ which is guided by the 1922 Colorado River Compact signed by the seven U.S. states touched by the Colorado River along with several other agreements and court rulings over several decades.
“I think they (Ratliff) are taking some very liberal assumptions for how quickly we could get down to deadpool,” Noe Santos, a Supervisory Interdisciplinary Engineer with Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin River Operations Group said when asked for its reaction to Ratliff’s scenario. “I think the bottom line is that the 37 days estimate is very inaccurate with Reclamation and the Basin States working to develop a solution to prevent Lake Mead from ever dropping below 1,000 ft.”
It’s a solution that appears to be more difficult to reach. Just last week six of the seven states signed a letter to the federal government proposing a series of extra water-saving measures. California did not sign the letter and has since proposed its own water-saving measures that will cut about half of the six-state proposal’s amount.
“The entire Colorado River system is a giant savings account and just like your personal savings it only works when you have at least as much coming in as you have going out,” Ratliff said. “Off and on over the last three decades, we’ve been spending way more water than we’ve been taking in. And the savings accounts are just about dry. Which is why the entire Colorado River Basin has to reduce its use of the water before the metaphorical ATM says ‘insufficient funds.'”
Ratliff said he is trying to educate people about the reality of the situation and that there is misinformation being released on all sides of the argument. Since his initial video on the Lake Mead deadpool scenario, Ratliff has published videos on what it would take to reverse a Deadpool situation at Lake Mead, what it would take to refill Lake Mead and a look at what happens if the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell were to drop to deadpool.
As of Feb. 2, 2023, Lake Mead is 1,046.94 feet above sea level. This is 182.06 feet lower than full pool and means the lake is at approximately 28% capacity.