The drought that has enveloped the Southwest for more than two decades is expected to lead to a first-ever water shortage declaration for next year.
The drought, now entering its 22nd year, has resulted in the water levels at Lake Mead dropping from an elevation of more than 1,210 feet at the start of 2000 down to about 1,080 feet right now. The current projections by the Bureau of Reclamation expect the water level to drop nearly 13 feet by the end of the year to 1,067.24 feet, which would trigger the first ever federally declared water shortage on the Lower Colorado River.
Bureau of Reclamation’s Boulder Canyon Operation Office Chief Daniel Bunk said Lake Mead’s current elevation is about 15 or 16 feet lower than it was at this time last year, and is at about 38% of the lake’s total capacity.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell’s current elevation of 3,563 feet is down about 35 feet from last year and at 35% of the lake’s full capacity.
Bunk said Arizona’s total system storage is currently at about 43% of its capacity, which is down about 9% from the spring of 2020.
“This 22 year period since 2000 is the driest 22-year period on record, and one of the driest if you go back 1,000 years and look at the paleo reconstructed record,” said Bureau of Reclamation’s Boulder Canyon Operation Office Chief Daniel Bunk.
Bunk went on to say that the two driest 10 year periods on record have both occurred in the last 22 years. He said the drought seems to have intensified over the past three or four years in particular.
While 2002 is the driest year on record in terms of inflow into Lake Powel, Bunk said 2021, currently at about 41% of average inflow, is threatening that record and will likely end up as one of the top three or four driest years by the end of the year.
Although a shortage on the Colorado River is currently projected, the Bureau of Reclamation will officially make that determination when it releases its 24-month study in August. If the water level at Lake Mead is projected to finish 2021 at an elevation below 1,075 feet that will trigger the Tier 1 reductions in the Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan adopted in 2019. If Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,050 feet a Tier 2 shortage would be declared, while levels at 1,025 feet would bring Tier 3 into effect.
Each higher tier brings with it larger water reductions for every state and Mexico under the Drought Contingency Plan.