Lake Mead and the Southwest

WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling leads the special series Forecast – A Fragile Climate. In his 50 years as a meteorologist, he has seen the atmosphere do things he never thought possible. This has prompted him and the WGN team to travel across the country in search of the latest climate research and information. There is serious work underway – from tracking Earth’s vital signs to massive climate adaptation projects.

In Part 1, Skilling visits his beloved Alaska, an area that is changing three times faster than other parts of the world.

In Part 2, we took you to the epicenter of earth science, where human brain power and sophisticated instruments intersect in the exploration of our changing planet.

In the final leg, Skilling and the team head to the drought-stricken Southwest. The country’s driest metropolis is supplied by the country’s largest reservoir and is in deep trouble. But this is a story of innovation and how one community has gone to great lengths to adapt to our changing climate.

Lake Mead is 40 miles from Las Vegas.

Captain Ray Poulin guides visitors hoping to catch a striped bass from the tank. He has fished the waters of Lake Mead for 27 years. In the last five years his business has almost dried up. Getting on the water isn’t easy. There’s only one starting point left, and it’s a dusty extension of where water once stood.

“This drought has lasted for 20 years,” he said.

Amidst the rugged beauty is an ugly memory. The so-called “bathtub line” marks where water levels were once reached. The reservoir has dropped about 170 feet since 2000.

“No one has seen that since the dam was built,” Poulin said. “It’s never been this low since they filled it.”

That was in the 1930s when the Colorado River basin was swelling. The Hoover Dam was built for power, flood control, recreation, and water storage.

“It’s incredible,” said Poulin. “I moved here from the great state of Maine in 1996 and until probably 2011 I saw water flowing over the dam and spillway.

As demand grows beyond what the river can produce, Colorado River flows are down 20% from the average over the last century. The past 22 years have been the driest in the river basin on record. Climate change is warming the region and has helped rain and winter snow fall drastically. The region is experiencing what is believed to be the worst drought in 1,200 years. Nevertheless, 40 million people depend on the natural resource. More than two million of them live in the growing Las Vegas.

Ninety percent of the area’s water supply is pumped from the reservoir. An inlet has now been uncovered and is no longer functional due to the historically low water level.

Miles away in downtown Las Vegas, Deputy Resource Manager Colby Pellegrino clarifies, “The future here is water conservation.”


Pellegrino says the Southern Nevada Water Authority realized the dire situation two decades ago when drought conditions forced their hand.

“What we are seeing may not be a temporary drought. It may be a permanent ecosystem, an ecological change where we will continue to get less rainfall and warmer temperatures; and that will fundamentally change our basin and hydrology,” said Pellegrino. “We see elevations that we have never seen in these reservoirs. And we know that climate change will continue to affect them.”

Rather than bet that levels would naturally rise, the agency took serious action.

“Climate change has affected us in many ways,” she said. “Warming temperatures are key. We see more days over 100 degrees. We assume that this will continue to increase. Thinking about mid-century we will add about 30 more days over 100 degrees to what we have today. All this warming leads to more water consumption.”

To adapt, they dug deeper.

“The largest climate change adaptation project that we have undertaken is the construction of our third extraction and deep-sea pumping station,” said Pellegrino. “Climate change will require adaptation, and this is one of the largest adaptation projects in the world. That’s 34 pumps reaching deeper than ever into collapsing Lake Mead to keep water supplying Las Vegas. This project cost $1.2 billion. That is the highest sum that a single city in the world spends on a climate adaptation project.”

Completed in 2020, the system, dubbed “The Third Straw,” draws water from Lake Mead even when the level drops to the so-called “dead pond” — no more water can flow downstream through the Hoover Dam to users in California, Arizona, and United States be delivered to Mexico .

“Our water supply does not come from nearby. The Colorado River is mostly snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains,” Pellegrino said. “So the biggest manifestation of changing climate is how it changes the flow of the Colorado River. And that’s why we’re working hard to give the river a slightly more sustainable future. … We’re a fairly new town. So when it hits a drain, it’s captured and channeled back into the Colorado River through Lake Mead.”


The bigger problem is outside and “an incredibly dry environment”.

“Nothing grows outdoors without being watered,” Pellegrino said.

Incentives and water restriction programs have helped reduce consumption even as the region explodes in population.

“Since 2002 we have added about 750,000 people to this valley. We also use 26% less water,” said Pellegrino.

With the exception of schools, parks and cemeteries, a natural desert landscape is preferred – in some cases mandatory – to high-maintenance lawns.

“Money for weed,” Pellegrino said. “We pay $3 per square foot for you to remove and convert your lawn.”

Golf courses have water budgets and so do casinos. These fancy fountains at the Bellagio are disruptive groundwater pumped to great heights for entertainment value, not a drain on the system.

“We don’t have a growth problem. We have a water footprint problem,” said Pellegrino.

Despite aggressive efforts, there’s another problem: The towering structures surrounding Hoover Dam draw in water to generate electricity.

Prognosis – Series Fragile Climate:
Part 1: What Alaskan Glaciers Are Telling Us About Warming
Part 2: NASA thought and technology tracks the changing planet

Noe Santos knows the water. He grew up in the area. The US Department of the Interior’s River Operations Manager says today’s supply does not match past allocations.


“What we didn’t know then but do know now is that the early 1900s were some of the wettest periods for the Colorado River,” he said.

Now, in much drier times, Santos said it was different.

“In a good year, with all the different uses and inflows, we lose about five feet of elevation,” he said. “This year we’re going to lose about 14 feet in height.”

At Hoover Dam, water generates energy for up to 450,000 homes. About 50% goes to California, with the other half shared between Nevada and Arizona.

“The next chapter in Colorado River history is going to be lose-lose,” Pellegrino said. “Everyone needs to consume less.” Lake Mead and the Southwest

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