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Op-Ed: Nevada's Lake Mead, the water history scare factor Special

By Jay David Murphy     Sep 23, 2009 in Environment
Since it first began filling up in 1935, Nevada's Lake Mead has been a lifeblood, providing water to the U.S. desert southwest. It's been over politicized and has given life to millions people for almost 75 years. But what is Lake Mead warning us about?
Nevada media likes reporting on water. Mostly, it concerns the water level in Lake Mead which supplies southern Nevada and Las Vegas with about 90 per cent of its usable water.
Every time someone goes out to use the lake for recreation, the visible signs of the water level decline are apparent by a white ring left around its rim, from minerals and salts deposited as the water level drops.
In 2007, the Nevada Water Authority was so concerned about this that it had all commercial properties shut down water features and fountains. Nightly, the water police patrol in Las Vegas went looking for water run-off into the streets so they could follow the wet trail back to the water waster to issue a citation.
From 1955 to 1965, everyone thought the lake was going to dry up. In the 1980s you would even have to request water at your restaurant table in Las Vegas. Every year, every decade, there is a water scare in Nevada and it surrounds Lake Mead.
Over the last 10 years, about 50 pool builders in Las Vegas grew at a breakneck pace trying to keep up with the demand for pools in new homes. With liberal financing, they were digging a pool in every backyard of every home that could fit one. More recently, the money for building pools has dried up from banks, as lenders won’t give out loans for pools because new home construction came to a halt when the economy slowed.
Pool Builder
This is a booth at a home show that was put up by a Las Vegas Pool builder during the building craze when lenders were allowing pools to be financed into to new home loans.
Jay David Murphy
Meanwhile, thousands of pools sit hardly used with water in them. They have become mostly ponds in backyards to look at instead of swim in. Foreclosures have led to pool shut downs, and in many cases water sits without being drained. The stagnant, dirty water has become a perfect home for insect infestations and mosquito breeding grounds.
A large amount of water from Lake Mead goes to fill Californian pools, too.
A significant portion of water from Lake Mead gets pumped up, almost 800 feet, to be put into the Central Arizona Project canals which at one time fed farms in the north part of Phoenix (now mostly gone to housing developments); Central Arizona for cotton farms; and then on down to Tucson where the water is pumped into the ground to be filtered because by the time it gets there it is yellow and brackish. When Tucson tried to turn on the spigot and mix it in with the regular ground water, citizens' complaints were so intense they had to shut down the project.
Boulder Dam
Boulder Dam which holds the Colorado River in check and creates Lake Mead.
Jay David Murphy
When Lake Mead began to fill in 1935, it was destined to be the largest reservoir in the United States and has been the lifeblood for growth in the southwest. It gave birth to Las Vegas because without it the desert gambling Mecca would never have been built.
In the landmark book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, it explains that from day one the water supply would never, even at full capacity, reach the promised water allocations for which the states in the southwestern U.S. had negotiated. The politicians over-promised.
Now, the big water scare is happening again. It's almost like clockwork. For those unaware, Lake Mead is fed its water by the Colorado River, which is fed its water by the snow pack each winter from the Rocky Mountains.
There is the occasional flood, most recently in 1992 and before that in 1983. Then, the water scare centered on questions of whether the dam would hold up to so much water coming in so quickly.
The water issue in the southwest is tied directly to one thing: The man-made reservoir that is Lake Mead, and the scare factor flows in and out with the changing of the seasons.
During national security scares, Lake Mead is watched like a hawk by authorities. Even today, large truck traffic is not allowed to go over the dam because of fears related to terrorism.
Boulder Dam
Boulder Dam which contains Lake Mead is being bypassed by a new bridge.
Jay David Murphy
It has become such a risk that Arizona and Nevada have been building an arched bridge over it that is now taking visible shape with a giant cement arch. Both sides now completed, they're waiting for the center spans to be built and put into place.
Phoenix at one time was a relatively small city, but now is in the top five in the United States. Las Vegas, for the last decade, has been leading the country in growth rate. California has become the world’s fifth largest economy. All this has happened because Lake Mead has been keeping a steady supply of water moving to its preordained allocated states.
Every year there is a water scare article put out by some news or some government agency, ringing the alarm bell. And yet, Lake Mead has kept a consistent water level since 1935. It has fluctuated about a 150 feet up and down, but it has remained remarkably consistent.
Nevada Wildlife boat
The Nevada Wildlife boat or Lake Mead police check the status of a ground jet skier.
Jay David Murphy
In a stats sheet available on the Internet you can see a charted month-by-month water level measured by how many feet above sea level the water line is, provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. You can see the charted consistency of Lake Mead. You can read the 1956 drop to 1083.81 above sea level (the water level recording system) in April of 1956. Then in June of 1956 it reaches 1116.62, which happens to be in sync with the snow melt in the Rockies.
Again in 1965, it dropped to 1088.31, then in March, it ran back up to 1110.08 and by July it was at 1125.69, again the snow melt brought the levels back up.
In 1983 it got a little dicey after a 100-year flood when it reached 1225.44 and everyone was wondering if the dam would hold up with so much water behind it.
In 1998 after dropping back down into the 1100’s through the 90’s, it hit 1215.76 in October, again causing concerns if the dam would hold.
Lake Mead Marina
The Lake Mead Marina near Boulder City Nevada and 30 minuets from Las Vegas.
Jay David Murphy
Now, in 2009 it is at 1093.74 for September and the water scare is on again. In fact, Nevada officials are using the same charts now as trigger to start building an expensive water pipe-line from all the communities in northern Nevada were they have been buying up farm land to get the underground water stored there and traditionally used by farmers to water crops.
The trigger number is 1,075 above sea level which is projected by the Bureau of Reclamation to not hit for another two years at the current rate of usage and evaporation.
If it hits 1,050 feet then they will shut down one of the two lines that feed Las Vegas with its water.
Other than pre-1937, it has never been that low.
Politicians use words like luck, maybe, and if when talking about Lake Mead, but if you look at the hard numbers since Boulder Dam was built, you can see a clear pattern of rising and falling water levels over the decades.
But like Chicken Little who says, “The sky is falling”, when someone sees some salt on the canyon walls it means the lake is drying up. This same water scare has allowed the state to go in and buy farmland for the water rights.
Water line Lake Mead
The water line near the dam in Lake Mead.
Jay David Murphy
But what it is really is doing is making up for a major political snafu that happened during the original allocation of the lake before 1935. Government officials over promised the involved states allocations and now they are using the visible water line as a political tool to scare voters into believing the lake is going to dry up.
This is not likely, in fact the numbers prove it. The snow each winter in the Rockies feeds the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, which feeds the desert southwest. And if the stats are correct we are due for another 100-year flood.
This week in Georgia, without a hurricane, the floods have come raging, all from rain upstream for the most part. This is another example of how predicable the unpredictable can be. It was just two years ago that Georgia did not see hardly a drop of rain. Now this week it came in bucket full’s.
Instead of people looking at salt on the canyon walls, crying calamity, listening to politicians who have not even bothered to look at the stats from the Bureau of Reclamation that is provided here, it’s time to start understanding two things.
First, the cycle of nature.
Second, the politicians don’t know science or how to read a historical scientific chart.
This does not mean that being smart about water usage is a bad thing, in fact it is the responsible thing to do, and it is the right thing to do. Waste of any kind is wrong. Perhaps it is time to put a moratorium on residential pool building. Work harder on providing landscaping that fits with the desert environment. Stop putting in lawns, using low water toilets, and so forth.
Salt Canyon walls Lake Mead
Salt and minerals form on the canyon walls when the water level drops in Lake Mead.
Jay David Murphy
If there is one good thing about salt on the canyon walls, it gets desert dwellers thinking right about water and stop wasting it, and trying to make the desert environment look like Maine or Northern California.
Sunset on Lake Mead
Cool picture at sunset on Lake Mead
Jay David Murphy
So the next time a politician’s holler's "water wolf" about Lake Mead in Nevada, just look at the charts then take a drive out with your camera and take some cool pictures at sunset. Then go home get your shovel, starting filling your pool up with dirt, and plant a garden, because it will be the only farming going on in Nevada.
But that is just this journalist opinion. One who has lived in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada his whole life.
Who was manning a radio station in southern Arizona when the Gila River was 4 miles across with in hours, waiting for the next crest, and stood ready to activate the Emergency Broadcast System.
Who crossed that same river in 1992 in Eden Arizona and was lucky enough to get through a half a mile of water flowing over the roadway, after crossing the bridge when the river jumped the bank, (I should have been washed away, just dumb luck I survived and managed to stall the truck just as I made it across) which left me trapped on the other side for two weeks.
Who read Cadillac Desert that same year.
Who, during a 20-year radio broadcasting career outlasted too many one-term politicians to count.
Who grew cotton on an organic farm in southern Arizona.
Who was in Tucson going to the University of Arizona when they started running the ugly yellow CAP water straight in to the drinking water before they started pouring into the ground so they would make sure they used their allotment of water from Lake Mead.
Who spent three years in the Las Vegas pool industry.
Jet ski at Lake Mead
Jet skiing at Lake Mead.
Jay David Murphy
And who went jet skiing this last weekend for the first time ever out on Lake Mead, had a blast, and took a lot of very cool pictures.
But this has all been just my personal perspective and opinion, what do I really know? I hope my first-hand life-long experience has shed a little light on the salt on the canyon walls of Lake Mead.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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