Lake Mead was once considered the largest reservoir in the U.S., with 28 million acre-feet of water. Unfortunately, because of increasing droughts, growing demand, and flawed political projections, Lake Mead has not reached full capacity since 1983. The latest forecast calls for Lake Mead’s elevation to be 1,077.93 feet above sea level on Dec. 31, 2015, which is less than three feet above the trigger level for a shortage in 2016.
The construction and development of more than a dozen dams has caused extensive damage to the Colorado River, which was once considered one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. As a direct result of these water developments, irreparable damage has been done to hundreds of canyons and archeological sites which are now flooded. With more than 40 species of non-native and invasive fish now in the Colorado River Basin, over 20 species of native fish face extinction, including the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub, and bonetail. Beyond the 22 million people who depend on Lake Mead for water, the ecological health of the Southwest is irrevocably bound to the health of the Colorado River, which impacts Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon, and even the Colorado Delta in Mexico.
In 1992, Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which sought to modify Glen Canyon Dam operations to “protect and mitigate adverse impacts to, and improve the values for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were established.” Unfortunately, lawmakers have struggled to implement the act. Plans have been put forward by the Glen Canyon Institute that take into account the drastic changes that Lake Mead has undergone since 1992, and address the weaknesses with the Grand Canyon Protection Act. Their study shows that up to 300,000 acre-feet of water could be saved each year in the Colorado Basin if the Fill Mead First proposal were implemented. That’s enough water to serve the annual needs of half of Los Angeles. In addition, basin study work groups have been formed by the US Bureau of Reclamation to assess potential solutions. Utah and Colorado are implementing their own Basin Implementation Plans, which are expected to be complete in 2015. EcoFlight will continue to educate students and the public by providing the aerial perspective of the changing conditions at Lake Mead.
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