Lake Mead from a distance showing bare rock hills with a large white band of recently exposed rock that was recently under water

The surface level of Lake Mead is at an all time low forcing the local water authority to create a third intake valve at the bottom of the lake. Photo courtesy: M P R | Flickr Creative Commons

Lake Mead has a bathtub ring—and it’s growing as the surface level descends—a total of 130 feet since the late 1990s. This loss represents a particular problem for communities in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico dependent on this water source. What would Las Vegas tourists do if the fountains and swimming pools went dry?

It’s a question of conservation. If you’re unsure about your financial future you begin to conserve. You study your spending habits and identify items you can live with out. You make do with less. It’s a reasonable response to scarcity.

Why isn’t a similar common-sense approach considered when it comes to water conservation, which frequently meets resistance when suggested as one way to protect a community resource? People don’t want to sacrifice their lawns. We’ve gotten used to an abundance of water. If it still comes out of the kitchen faucet then it’s not really a problem.

California Governor Jerry Brown’s plan requires all residents to cut water use by twenty five percent, but he’s short on practical advice for achieving that goal. Instead, he gets poetic about water, as reported in an LA Times story by Cathleen Decker. “Some people call water a right, some people call water the essence of life. Water is more than H20; water is a baptism. Water is a poetry,” Brown said. This is an example of politics trumping policy—an absence of critical leadership.

But this period of drought in the west is a silent crisis. On May 3, “the water level in Lake Mead dropped to an all-time low, falling below 1080 feet above sea level for the first time in 78 years,” reports the Brookings Institute. Today, due to the loss of snow melt from the Colorado Mountains, an extended drought, and increased demand for water from Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico the water level is at an all time low. So low that it approaching the level of existing intake vales.

Conservation is a reasonable solution. But the decision by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to literally pull the plug on Lake Mead is conservation gone wrong. The construction of the third intake pipe at the very bottom of the lake cost $817 million and features a 3-mile tunnel with a 16-foot wide steel plug holding back 3 trillion gallons of water.

The easy solution to this drought was simple—drain the bathtub. Once they pull the plug cities, counties, states, and countries that depend on water from Lake Mead will have access to the very last drop. They call it the third straw. But really, isn’t it the last straw for Lake Mead?