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The Las Vegas hydrant is now visible in drought-affected Lake Mead

The water supply for Las Vegas marked a milestone, with a water intake breaking the surface of drought-depleted Lake Mead and the activation of a new pumping facility to draw water from deep within the crucial Colorado River reservoir .

LAS VEGAS — A massive drought-starved reservoir on the Colorado River has been so depleted that Las Vegas is now pumping water from deep within Lake Mead, where other downstream states have no access.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority announced this week that its lake low-level pumping station is operational and released photos of the upper intake visible at 1,050 feet (320 meters) above sea level in the lake behind the dam. Hoover.

“While this underscores the severity of drought conditions, we have been preparing for this for over a decade,” said Bronson Mack, spokesman for the water authority. The low-level intake allows Las Vegas to “maintain access to its main water supply in Lake Mead, even if water levels continue to decline due to ongoing drought and climate change conditions,” he said.

The move to start using what had been seen as protection against faucets running dry in case we need it comes as water managers in several states that rely on the Colorado River take new steps to conserve water in the midst of of what has become a perpetual drought. .

“We don’t have enough water supplies right now to meet normal demand. The water is not there,” Metropolitan Water District of Southern California spokeswoman Rebecca Kimitch said this week. The agency told some 6 million people in sprawling Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to cut back on outdoor watering to one day a week, starting June 1, or face hefty fines.

The surface level of another massive Colorado River reservoir, Lake Powell, dipped below a critical threshold in March, raising concerns about whether the Glen Canyon Dam can continue to generate power for some 5 million customers around the world. western US

Lake Mead and Lake Powell upriver are the largest man-made reservoirs in the US and are part of a system that provides water to more than 40 million people, tribes, agriculture and industry in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and across the southern border in Mexico.

At Lake Mead, the new pumps feed from a drilled intake closer to the lake bottom and were completed in 2020 to ensure the ability to continue pumping water for Las Vegas, its casinos, suburbs, and 2.4 million residents and 40 million tourists per year. year.

The “third straw” draws drinking water to 895 feet (272.8 meters) above sea level, below a point where water would not be released downstream from Hoover Dam.

Together, the pipeline and pump projects cost more than $1.3 billion. Drilling began in 2014, amid projections that the lake level would continue to drop due to drought. Increasingly dry conditions in the region are now being attributed to long-term climate change.

Lake Mead, between Nevada and Arizona, reached its highest point in July 1983, at 1,225 feet (373.4 meters) above sea level. On Friday, the level was 1,055 feet (321.6 meters), about 30% full. Some of the steeper cliffs bordering the lake show 51.8 meters (170 ft) of white mineral “bathtub ring”.

“Without the third gate, southern Nevada would be closing its doors,” said Pat Mulroy, a former head of the Las Vegas-based water authority who is now a consultant. “That’s pretty obvious, since the first drop is out of the water.”

A mid-level pipe can also draw water from 304.8 meters (1,000 feet).

The authority maintains that Las Vegas’s water supply is not immediately threatened. He points to water conservation efforts that he says since 2002 have reduced the regional consumption of Colorado River water by 26%, while the area’s population has increased by 49%.