Two charts show an improving trend in Lake Mead and Lake Powell water levels after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) issued a low storage warning for the former on Tuesday.
After years of drought, Lake Mead, which is in Nevada and Arizona, reached drastically low levels last summer, but water levels have since started to recover because of above-average precipitation and snowpack that melted throughout the summer.
On Wednesday, data compiled by a website dedicated to Lake Mead’s water levels showed a steady trend of improving water levels. The lake has recovered by nearly 20 feet since its low levels in April, according to the chart.
Lake Powell, which is in Utah and Arizona, has experienced a similar trend, with a chart by the Lake Powell Water Database showing the reservoir’s steep recovery of more than 30 feet since April levels. The lake’s water levels have started a slow decline since July but it remains in a much better situation compared with last year.
The BOR, which manages both reservoirs, said that more improvement is needed, specifically for Lake Mead. On Tuesday, the BOR issued 2024 operating conditions for both reservoirs.
Newsweek reached out to the BOR by email for comment.
In the updated operating conditions, Lake Mead will operate at a Level 1 Storage Condition. The classification requires a reduction in Colorado River water allocation for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. A 24-month study by the BOR said the reservoir’s January 1, 2024, levels are estimated to be at 1,065 feet.
“This is a significant improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year,” the statement said.
Despite the improvement, the estimated levels are still 25 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet.
The Level 1 Storage Condition requires reduced Colorado River water use for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Arizona must operate at an 18 percent deduction from its annual allocation and reduce water usage by 512,000 acre-feet. Nevada will reduce water usage by 21,000 acre-feet, a 7 percent deduction, and New Mexico will reduce water usage by 80,000 acre-feet, a 5 percent reduction.
The reductions in water usage aren’t new developments for Arizona and Nevada. Not only have they already been operating on reduced water allocation from the Colorado River, but in May, the states, along with California, pledged to cut an additional 3 million acre-feet from their annual water usage by 2026. In return, they will receive federal compensation.
The BOR statement also said Lake Powell will operate in a Mid-Elevation Release Tier for the 2024 water year, meaning that the lake will release 7.38 million acre-feet of water during that time.
Despite improvements from above-average precipitation, Lakes Powell and Mead are at a combined storage of only 36 percent of their usual capacity. The Colorado River also continues to face low elevations.
In July, a study from the American Geophysical Union found that climate change caused the loss of over 10 trillion gallons of water from the river over the past two decades. The water loss is equivalent to the size of Lake Mead.
“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement. “However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead—the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system—remain at historically low levels.”
Touton continued: “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”
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