Had the formidable white arc of the Hoover dam never held back the Colorado River, the US west would probably have no Los Angeles or Las Vegas as we know them today. No sprawling food bowl of wheat, alfalfa and corn. No dreams of relocating to live in a tamed desert. The river, and dam, made the west; now the climate crisis threatens to break it.
The situation here is emblematic of a planet slowly, inexorably overheating. And the catastrophic consequences of the extreme weather this brings.
Hoover Dam reservoir sinks to record low, in sign of extreme Western U.S. drought<br>Low water levels due to drought are seen as visitors take photos in the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. June 9, 2021. Picture taken June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Bridget Bennett
Lake Mead: largest US reservoir falls to historic low amid devastating drought
Hoover dam is the height of a 60-story building and is 45ft wide at the top and 660ft wide at the bottom. Its construction, in the teeth of the Great Depression, was a source of such national pride that thousands of people journeyed through the hostile desert to witness the arrival of what has become an enduring monument to collective effort for the public good.
The engineering might of Hoover dam undoubtably reshaped America’s story, harnessing a raucous river to help carve huge cities and vast fields of crops into unforgiving terrain. But the wellspring of Lake Mead, created by the dam’s blocking of the Colorado River and with the capacity to hold enough water to cover the entire state of Connecticut 10ft deep, has now plummeted to an historic low. The states of the west, primarily Arizona and Nevada, now face hefty cuts in their water supplies amid a two-decade drought fiercer than anything seen in a millennium.
“We bent nature to suit our own needs,” said Brad Udall, a climate and water expert at Colorado State University. “And now nature is going to bend us.”
Surveying the dam’s sloping face from its curved parapet, Michael Bernardo, river operations manager at the US Bureau of Reclamation, admits the scarcity of water is out of bounds with historical norms. While there is no “average” year on the Colorado River, Bernardo and his colleagues were always able to estimate its flow within a certain range.
But since 2000, scientists say the river’s flow has dwindled by 20% compared to the previous century’s average. This year is the second driest on record, with the flow into Lake Mead just a quarter of what would be considered normal.