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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

America’s Largest Reservoir Keeps Shrinking

This April 13, 2014 view shows Hoover Dam, a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border between the US states of Arizona and Nevada. Hoover Dam ,finished in 1936, impounds Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States by volume. The dam's generators provide power for public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Hoover Dam is a major tourist attraction; nearly a million people tour the dam each year. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

The Hoover Dam, which impounds Lake Mead is pictured on April 13, 2014. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, is at an alarmingly low level. It provides water to Nevada, Arizona and other desert states, and the West Coast drought is creating even more dependency on the reservoir.

Adam Burke, news director for Nevada Public Radio, has been covering the shrinking lake, and describes a visible bathtub line where water once stood. He discusses efforts to preserve Lake Mead’s water supply with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.


  • Adam Burke, news director for Nevada Public Radio KNPR. He tweets @adamknpr.




Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States. It straddles Nevada and Arizona and draws water from the Colorado River and from snowmelt. It's also where you'll find the Hoover Dam. But right now, it's at its lowest levels in generations, which is particularly problematic for Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water supply from Lake Mead. Joining us now from Las Vegas is Adam Burke, news director for Nevada Public Radio KNPR. Hi, Adam.

ADAM BURKE, BYLINE: Howdy, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, how low is Lake Mead right now?

BURKE: Lake Mead reached an historic high in the late '90s, and since then it's dropped nearly a hundred feet. So the L.A. Times recently reported that the upper intake valve that draws water from the reservoir to Las Vegas is a little less than 50 feet above that upper intake pipe. So it's a lot lower than it used to be. But you can see the decline of the reservoir when you go there, or the people who fly over into Las Vegas see this giant bathtub ring around the edge of the lake where the water used to be.

HOBSON: You've seen it, right?

BURKE: Oh, yes. Yes. And you can't miss the bathtub ring. You can see it from a distance.

HOBSON: Now, what kind of a difference does that make at this point for Las Vegas, if any? Are people in Las Vegas changing their water consumption habits because of this?

BURKE: I think that's still a relatively small fringe of people who are doing kind of extreme things, like - I know a few people who catch their rinse water from doing their dishes and they'll dump it into their gardens and things like that. But for the most part, people they pay for water as it comes to them, and water is relatively inexpensive here still. So, you know, a lot of people haven't changed their habits.

But the water authority, which is the local agency that governs water use in Southern Nevada, has pushed for certain measures and tried to encourage people to retire their lawns and go to xeriscaping. And, you know, that's had mixed results. But according to the L.A. Times report, 70 percent of the water used here is growing grass. So there's a long way to go evidently.

HOBSON: Yeah, which may surprise a lot of people because if you drive around Las Vegas, people don't have yards in a lot of places. They have just rocks in front of their house, which a lot of water experts say is the right thing to do in a place where there's not a lot of rain. But 70 percent, as you say, of this water is being used for things like golf courses and lawns and parks.

BURKE: That's right. So, you know, as climate change continues to grip the region and drought persists, we'll have to make some tough choices about whether those golf courses are the right thing to do. On the one hand, tourists love to play golf, and we love tourists here in Las Vegas. So we may not have as much wiggle room there as conservationists would like. On the other hand, if the cost of water goes up or if the states start suing one another over the use of the Colorado River, it may become a prohibitively expensive thing to do to grow grass.

HOBSON: Well - and we should say that if you look at Las Vegas water use in general, it has actually come down on a per capita basis over the last several decades. But the population has gone up. And if you think about the strip in Las Vegas where all those hotel casinos are, some of them with these incredible water features in front of them, a lot of that is recycled water and is actually very smartly used. We spoke with Charles Fishman about this. He's the author of the book "The Big Thirst." And here's what he had to say about Las Vegas' water use.

CHARLES FISHMAN: Las Vegas is one of the most water-smart cities in the country and even one of the most water-smart in the world. They have no choice. The amount of water they could take from the huge reservoir, Lake Mead, was set back in the 1930s. And although the city is 10 times, even 100 times the size it was then, they don't get any new water. So they have to figure out how to use the very limited water they've got smartly or they'd have to stop growing.

HOBSON: Adam Burke, square that for us. How does it work out that Las Vegas is a very smart city when it comes to water and also spending 70 percent of its water on golf courses and stuff?

BURKE: Well, I mean, officials like to point to the efficiency of the Las Vegas strip. I mean, you mentioned it yourself. The fountains that we see when we walk the Las Vegas strip are a little bit of an illusion. They come from recycled water. The water authority likes to say that the strip uses 3 percent of the region's water and accounts for 70 percent of the economy. So in that sense, it's efficient. On the other hand, there obviously is some belt-tightening that can and probably should be done as the reservoir, Lake Mead, and the Colorado River as a water resource dwindles.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about some of the other options, and one of them is a pipeline.

BURKE: That's right. Ninety percent of our water comes from the Colorado River and so as water officials look for other options, there are only a few available. There is this contingency plan in the works, a multibillion dollar pipeline project that would bring in groundwater from the Great Basin to the north. It apparently, over decades, would cost some $15 billion. But right now, that project is stuck in court battles with a coalition of opponents. Still, in January, when we talked to John Ensminger, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, he told us that that's the authority's only plan B.

HOBSON: Is there any talk of slowing the development of Las Vegas, which has seen in recent years, especially before the recession, big population increases?

BURKE: So that's the big question, right? What happens to sprawl, what happens to growth in a city that's been rooted in that for a few decades now? And we were the fastest growing city in America in the early '00s. Well, the cost of water has at least something to do with it. So if the cost of water goes up, it'll be more difficult to build more homes and pull more people here. But right now, the cost of water is relatively low because our infrastructure is new, so people pay for what they can get, right? If water is cheap, it doesn't really seem prohibitively expensive to build more houses.

HOBSON: And what about individuals? When you walk around the streets of Las Vegas and talk to people, are they talking about the need to conserve just on an individual level to turn off the faucet as soon as possible when they're done using it or to take shorter showers.

BURKE: I was at a party, actually, a few weekends ago, an evening party. It was in a backyard, and there was a bunch of grass and picnic tables and these big mulberry trees. And we were all kind of gathered, talking, and the people on either side of me were arguing about water use. And the guy who owned the house loved his lawn, and he loved how it felt to walk out his backdoor and have this, you know, cool environment, this little oasis that he could enjoy every evening.

And the woman on the right was telling him he had to wrap it up and put in xeriscaping. And they're old friends, and I think that it was an old argument. But I think as the region looks at the cost of water going up and this level of the lake dropping, there'll be some hard choices and those conversations will become more commonplace.

HOBSON: Adam Burke, news director with Nevada Public Radio KNPR in Las Vegas. Adam, thanks for joining us.

BURKE: You bet.

HOBSON: And if you're listening to us on KNPR in Las Vegas, have you cut your water use? Let us know at By the way, I'm looking right now at the drought monitor map. Almost 70 percent of the West is in some kind of drought, about 43 percent in severe drought and 4 percent, mostly in California and Nevada in exceptional drought. That's the highest level. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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