Lake Mead water level flowing well below forecasts could drop another 12 feet by fall

It is well below what last year’s outlook predicted.

The U.S. Reclamation Office’s latest forecast shows that the reservoir is dropping from its current elevation of about 1049 feet above sea level to about 1037 feet by this September.

One year later, in September 2023, it suggests that Lake Mead will be 26 feet below its current level – only 19% of the lake’s full capacity and a level that would trigger the most severe water cuts for the Southwest.

The region is already in an unprecedented Tier 1 shortage at the Colorado, which caused forced water cuts that largely affected agriculture. The latest forecast would suggest that California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see even more significant cuts to their Colorado River water beginning in January, and – without a pair of hit winters with a lot of rain and snow – more severe cuts the following year that would strain into domestic and industrial use. Federal officials make those decisions year after year in August.

As a sign of how bad the water crisis has become for the Southwest, Lake Mead is already running well below what last year’s projections suggested, even at its worst. In August, the office predicted that the reservoir would most likely be at 1,059 feet by the end of this month, and 1,057 feet at its worst.

It is now about 1,049 feet.

Patti Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, told CNN that this was due to several factors – and the poor rain last winter played a big role.

“Yeah, we’ve had very, very low drainage this year,” Aaron said.

She also pointed to two other factors that are pushing Lake Mead far below its forecast. One is that federal officials made an unprecedented decision last month to postpone water released from upstream at Lake Powell, in order to maintain the Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectric power generation capabilities. That means less water is now flowing down Lake Mead.

But she also pointed more generally to the worsening drought in the Southwest, which has increased the amount of water that agriculture draws from Colorado.

“Agricultural demand downstream has actually been higher this year because it was a warmer, drier spring than normal,” Aaron said. “So their demands were higher.”

Drought conditions in the Southwest have significantly worsened over the past week, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported on Thursday. In particular, “exceptional drought” – the worst name – has spread in California from almost zero coverage to 11% of the state.

The worst drought conditions were noted in the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding mountains in California, where the “snow cover is almost non-existent below 8,000 feet,” the monitor reported, causing the peak snowmelt water to occur “weeks earlier.” “Winter snowpack stores valuable water that then melts and drains into reservoirs in the spring. The California snowpack provides 30% of the state’s water, according to the Department of Water Resources.

As the drought deepened, Lake Mead’s water level dropped below 1,050 feet for the first time last week – a sign more severe water cuts are coming for the Southwest.

The next consistent report from the bureau comes in August, at which point it will determine whether more cuts are needed. If the forecast indicates that Lake Mead’s water level will be below 1,050 feet will come on Jan. 1, the Southwest will move into the second tier of unprecedented water cuts that will deepen the impacts for cities, industry and tribal water users.

CNN’s Brandon Miller contributed to this story.

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