Dams and the American Southwest
Not too far outside of Las Vegas stands Hoover Dam, which created and maintains Lake Mead, the largest reservoir by volume in the US. About 300 miles upstream in Utah stands the Glen Canyon Dam, which created and maintains Lake Powell, the second largest. These reservoirs provide the water of life for a combined 45 million people.
Both have had their ups and downs with respect to the amount of water stored, largely due to times of plentiful waterfall and times of drought. Water management, given that several states and two nations are involved, is incredibly complex. We've explored these issues before--here's a sample:
Lake Mead sets a record -- not in a good way
The news of the week is that Lake Mead has set another record, and not in a good way. The lake is now at its historic low -- the lowest level ever in its history. This has rekindled a number of public policy debates about how to deal with the situation and the water management of the Southwest in general.
A worthy public debate
There is no dispute about whether or not this is a serious issue. Both reservoirs at at less than half capacity and shrinking quickly. What this has done is bring up an interesting public policy option, which could be summed up like this: Let's decommission the Glen Canyon Dam and allow the water to be stored downstream in Lake Mead.
This is a worthy public debate. The concept actually makes sense from a tactical and scientific perspective, because one of the largest sources of water loss is evaporation, and storing all the water in one lake vs two would cut the problem in half. However, given the aforementioned complexities in the politics of the issue, sensible solutions are rarely enacted, and this one probably won't be either.
But we should not under any circumstances lose sight of the bigger picture. These dams, these reservoirs, the cities of the Southwest, and agriculture in California that depend on this water are in grave danger. Let's assume we consolidate water storage in Lake Mead. How long before Lake Mead is only half full again? How long before it's one fourth full? Empty? What happens to Las Vegas when that happens?
Possibly one of the best short-term solutions would be to consolidate the reservoirs. However, one of the worst things that could happen would be for everyone to slap each other on the back, pop the champagne, and declare the problem solved.
No matter what we do, the problem is only beginning. And we dare not forget that.