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July 23, 2014

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Despite good snowpack in Rockies, Lake Mead level still expected to drop

Lake Mead is drying up. At the rate we use water in the valley, the reservoir — the largest in the country — could be drained and arid by 2050.

Thirty years ago, a seemingly endless supply of water rushed down the Colorado River, into Lake Mead and out of our faucets.

Today, 14 years into a drought that has left the valley parched, our reservoirs are less than half full.

Why? Climate change and use. The effects of global warming have been devastating. Snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado River, is only slightly above average this year. And Las Vegans have become accustomed to green lawns, lush golf courses, decadent fountains and leisurely showers.

The feds are expected to declare a water shortage for the West some time in the next two years. Las Vegas has conserved enough to be spared from that edict, but for how long? If the drought persists, the seven states that share the Colorado River will have to find new sources of water and new ways to survive.

Doomsday scenarios

The Colorado River provides drinking water for 36 million Americans, supplies irrigation for 15 percent of the nation’s crops and supports a $26 billion recreation economy that employs 250,000 people. If the river’s water level keeps dropping as it has, there’s more at stake than car washes and fountains.

• 2014: The Bureau of Reclamation cut the flow of water into Lake Mead to a historic low. The agency predicts a drop of 18 feet by June and 30 feet by June 2015, when water levels could approach an all-time low.

• 2015: Lake Mead could dip to a level so low that there would be a major decline in power generation at Hoover Dam. That could destabilize the energy market and mean more expensive bills for 29 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California. Upstream, declining water levels in Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, could cut off power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as winter 2015, affecting the power supply and pricing in six states.

• 2050: The Colorado River could be up to 10 percent drier than today. Communities could shrink because there isn’t enough water to support residents. Fires could rip through towns because of a lack of water to fight them. Lawns could be limited to the extremely wealthy. Farms could go brown and barren, and a recreation industry dependent on the river could go dry.

Conservation tips

• Cash in your grass: Grass blades are thirsty. Tearing up turf and replacing it with desert landscaping can reduce a household’s water use by up to 75 percent. Even better, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will pay you $1.50 for each square foot of grass that you remove.

• Fix leaks: Running toilets, leaky faucets and inefficient irrigation lines are among the biggest culprits for wasted water. A leaky toilet can waste up to 200 gallons a day, the equivalent of flushing more than 50 times. To save water, contact a plumber about leaks, buy a low-flow toilet and make sure your sprinkler system is tuned.

• Follow the schedule: Local municipalities have strict schedules for watering. Not only is it the law, it’s financially practical. If you water out of turn, expect a fee or citation. Beginning May 1, watering is prohibited between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. (Don’t worry — your plants and grass will be just fine.)

• Cover that pool: We all know how hot it can get here during summer. And the desert sun isn’t just dangerous for people. It can wreak havoc on pools, too. To reduce evaporation, use a pool cover. They can reduce evaporation up to 50 percent. Added bonus: They’ll warm your pool naturally.

• Embrace the rain: It doesn’t rain often in Las Vegas, but when it does, it’s time to turn off sprinklers. Rain sensors that sell for less than $20 can automatically turn off your irrigation systems on a rainy day, which can save up to 500 gallons a pop. It also protects your lawn from being oversaturated.

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