hoover dam lake mead
The Hoover Dam supplies power to 1.3 million people; (photo/Kunal Mehta)

Parched West Receives $200 Million to Refill Largest Reservoir in US

Amid an ongoing drought, stakeholders will team up to refill Lake Mead, and the effort will not be cheap.

Since 1983, Lake Mead has been disappearing. In summer 2021, it hit the lowest level in its 86-year history. When it emptied to just 35.17% capacity in June, alarm bells went off. As the United States’ largest reservoir, Lake Mead supplies water to the Lower Colorado River Basin states: Arizona, California, and Nevada (including Las Vegas).

Now, the Bureau of Reclamation and other interest groups have stepped up to refill it via new conservation protocols. On Wednesday, state water agencies in Arizona, California, and Nevada announced a $200 million investment in Colorado River conservation projects.

The 500+ Plan aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to the lake during 2022 and 2023. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot.)

The measure would keep the faucets running in 1.5 million households for a year, and increase the reservoir’s water level by 16 feet. The project exists as a collaboration between the Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of the Interior, and several water conservation and state entities.

Two decades of drought on the Colorado River is taking a toll across the Basin and on Lake Mead,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement. “By working together we’ve staved off these historic low levels for years, thanks to collaboration and conservation in the Lower Basin. But we need even more action, and we need it now.”

boating on lake mead
Recently exposed shoreline and islands at Lake Mead; (photo/CrackerClips Stock Media)

500+ Plan Funding and Context

According to the agreement, the Arizona Department of Water Resources will commit up to $40 million to the initiative. Central Arizona Project, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will each contribute up to $20 million. The federal government has pledged to match the grand total, which brings the project’s maximum funding to $200 million.

The plan also implicates funding available via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or “Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill”). The recently ratified bill, the partners noted, includes an $8.3 billion investment in water infrastructure. Stated goals include minimizing the impacts of drought and creating a long-term plan for water conservation and economic growth.

The case to put Lake Mead near the top of the list looks fair. At maximum capacity, the lake is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, containing 28.5 million acre-feet of water. Currently, it holds just over 9 million acre-feet.

lake mead
The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, already low in October 2010.

The reservoir’s depletion poses widespread water shortage concerns and even threatens electrical grids throughout the Lower Basin. The lake’s water powers the Hoover Dam, which generates on average a massive 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually — enough for 1.3 million people.

Drought Threatens Lake Recreation

The region’s prolonged drought also puts the Lake Mead National Recreation Area at risk. And 2020 was its busiest year in over a decade, as it drew over 8 million people. But lake access continues to grow more difficult as the water recedes from marinas and parking lots.

In August, RV Travel reported that the closest boat ramp to the water sat a mile away from the shore. One of the lake’s most popular RV resorts and marinas at Echo Bay was also forced to close.

The Colorado River at large supports a massive recreation industry, from guided whitewater trips to intensive backcountry canoeing.

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Methods for Conserving Lake Mead’s Water

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation regulates water usage from the lake under level one shortage conditions. Though the announcement was a first for Lake Mead, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise. In summer 2021, depletion started to expose landscape features that had been submerged for decades.

The upshot: In 2022, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada will all lose part of their usual Lake Mead water allotment. In total, 600,000 acre-feet of water are scheduled for withholding.

Initial details are scant, but the 500+ Plan relies on alternative conservation measures. It advocates for financing fallow crops (in other words, paying farmers to leave their fields bare, instead of irrigating them) and implementing conservation plans in cities to decrease water diversion.

A Sense of Urgency Makes the 500+ Plan Reality

Notably, the 500+ Plan doesn’t represent the first collaborative conservation effort aimed at Lake Mead. In 2019, the Lower Basin states signed a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), agreeing to contribute water to the lake if it dwindled past specified levels.

“We had hoped the contributions made under the DCP would be enough to stabilize Lake Mead while we seek longer-term solutions to the challenges on the Colorado River,” said Metropolitan General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “But they aren’t, which is why we are moving forward with the 500+ Plan.”

lake mead national recreation area
Low water levels at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Negotiations for the 2019 DCP took more than 5 years to complete. But a sense of urgency appears to have prevailed in the 500+ partnership. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said the plan “came together in a matter of a few months.”

“That alone is a powerful testament to the commitment of the Lower Basin States to work together with our partners at Reclamation to protect this vital river system,” he added.

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Sam Anderson
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Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.