After shockingly low water levels revealed dead bodies along Lake Mead’s shores in 2022, the southwestern reservoir saw a brief recovery in 2023. However, authorities are still concerned that this gargantuan lake is facing an uncertain future and, if worst comes to worst, could be approaching a disastrous tipping point.
Lake Mead is a large reservoir on the Colorado River located in the states of Nevada and Arizona, some 39 kilometers (24 miles) east of Las Vegas. It’s a relatively new addition to the area, only created in the 1930s after the completion of the Hoover Dam flooded the barren land with water.
Over the past four decades, water levels in the reservoir’s four connected basins have dramatically dipped, transforming significant parts of this once plush lake.
In 2023, Lake Mead continued to experience some of the lowest water levels seen in recent times. According to the Bureau of Reclamation Records, water levels in Lake Mead in January 2023 were at around 319 meters (1,047 feet), gently rose throughout the spring and summer, and then fell to 324 meters (just under 1,065 feet). This is dramatically down from the 1980s and 90s when levels were regularly above 365 meters (1,200 feet).
The low levels of 2023 were beaten only by those seen in 2022, when the lake became so parched it revealed several human bodies. One was found in a barrel with a gunshot wound, leading police to believe he was the victim of a murder decades before. In November 2023, a facial reconstruction of the victim was released in a bid to identify the man, but there's no word of any leads yet.
Months earlier, in March 2023, Nevada officials revealed that some unrelated skeletal remains found at Lake Mead the previous year were those of a 39-year-old Las Vegas man who accidentally drowned in April 1974.
The declining fortunes of Lake Mead are down to water usage, climate change, and a long-term drought. Spurred on by the global climate crisis, the southwest US is currently experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change. Higher temperatures are leading to more evaporation of the water, while changes in precipitation mean the lake is not being refilled as regularly as before.
It was hoped that 2023 could bring some relief to Lake Mead. A wet winter and water cuts ordered by surrounding states were anticipated to help replenish the lake’s dwindling water levels, but their impact has been limited.
“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. 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,” Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement in August 2023.
The health of the lake could have some very real impacts. Some 25 million people rely on the river for drinking water, industrial purposes, hydroelectric power, and crop irrigation.
In 2024 and the years ahead, Lake Mead will face a major battle to avoid its tipping point, whereby its reservoirs sink irreversibly into crisis levels. Water and land management will help the struggle, but authorities are ultimately fighting an uphill battle against climate change.
“While Reclamation and its partners have been successful in conserving water in Lake Mead and Colorado River System reservoirs, more needs to be done as the system reaches critically low water levels," Touton told senators in June 2022.
"The system is at a tipping point."