Will Hoover Dam go Bust?

May 29, 2016

As the Southwest continues in historic drought, Hoover Dam’s reservoir, Lake Mead, is at historic low water levels. What are the ramifications?

NASA Earth Observatory:

The last time Lake Mead was this low—in 1937—water managers were still filling the reservoir and putting finishing touches on the Hoover Dam. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water level has now reached a record low for the second year in a row.

On May 25, 2016, the surface level of Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam stood at 1,074.03 feet (327.36 meters) above sea level. The previous low of 1,075.08 feet (327.68 meters) was set in late June 2015. The lowest water levels each year are usually reached in late June or July, after water managers have released the yearly allotment of water for farmers and cities farther down the Colorado River watershed. That means water levels are likely to continue to fall in 2016 to roughly 1,070 feet (326 meters), according to the Bureau of Reclamation.



The pair of Landsat images above show the lake near its highest and lowest points over the past 32 years. The top image was acquired on May 15, 1984, by the Thematic Mapper on the Landsat 5 satellite. The lake last approached full capacity in the summer of 1983. The second image was acquired on May 23, 2016, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. Turn on the image comparison tool to see the changes in the shoreline after lake water levels dropped 135 feet (41 meters). Notice the white-tan “bathtub ring” around the edges of the water; this is exposed sand and minerals that would normally be under water.

Lake Mead is now roughly 37 percent full. At maximum capacity, the reservoir would hold 9.3 trillion gallons (36 trillion liters) of water, reaching an elevation 1,220 feet (372 meters) near the dam. Most of the water in this great reservoir comes from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountain range and travels through Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, and into Lake Mead. Farmers and some cities in Arizona, Nevada, California, and northern Mexico all rely on water from Lake Mead.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the lake will be refilled enough by the end of 2016 to avoid cuts in water deliveries in 2017. Lake Mead National Recreation Area continues to operate water sports, sightseeing, and hiking facilities in the area, despite ongoing drought.

The Colorado Basin has endured roughly sixteen years of drought and declining water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. At the same time, populations continue to grow in the sun-drenched region.

Circle of Blue:

Six years ago, at the end of the summer of 2010, federal Bureau of Reclamation officials worried that Hoover Dam, the biggest hydropower enterprise in the Southwest, might soon go dark. Water levels in Lake Mead, the dam’s energy source, were falling, and Hoover was moving “into uncharted territory,” the facility manager told Circle of Blue.

Today, the story has a twist. Lake Mead is 10 feet lower, a new record set on May 18 that is re-broken every day now. Yet though water levels continue to decline, Hoover’s hydropower is in a much better spot. Thanks to investment in efficient equipment, managers are confident that they can still wring electricity from the Colorado River even as the surface elevation of Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, the uncharted territory that was assumed to be Hoover’s operating limit.

“As far as power goes, we can still operate below 1,050 feet,” Rose Davis, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman, told Circle of Blue. Dam operators are revising the lower limit to 950 feet, a boundary that will be confirmed in October once the fifth and final more-efficient turbine is installed, Davis said.

Electricity from Hoover is some of the cheapest in the country, at 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour. Constructions costs for the dam were paid off years ago and the energy source, the water, comes from Mother Nature free of charge.

Customers in Arizona, California, and Nevada, the destination for Hoover’s output, would like to keep the cheap power flowing. That is why they spent $US 14.9 million since 2011 on the turbines and wicket gates.

The problem with Mead’s low water level for power generation is physics. Pressure differences in the water coming into the generators produce air bubbles on the turbine blades. As the water flows across the blades, the bubbles collapse and burst, which causes vibrations that can damage the generating unit. If the vibrations worsen, the unit must be shut down.

Wide-head turbines are designed to avoid these “rough zones” and operate smoothly at low reservoir levels. Four of Hoover’s 17 turbines have been fitted with wide-head models, and a fifth will be installed by October.

The wicket gates, on the other hand, allow for more precise control of water flowing through the turbines. They also reduce water leakage so that every drop that passes through Hoover can generate as much power as possible. Digital controls, which allow for more precise positioning of the wicket gates, have been installed at Hoover as well as at Davis and Parker dams, downstream on the Colorado.

“Any efficiency in hydropower means more power for our customers,” Kara Lamb told Circle of Blue. Lamb is the spokeswoman for the Western Area Power Administration, which markets Hoover’s power.

Though Hoover will not shut down any time soon, low water levels still reduce its output.

Generating capacity — the maximum amount of power that the dam is capable of producing — is down 30 percent from when Mead was full. For every foot that Mead drops, generating capacity decreases by five to six megawatts. Money is power, the old saying goes. So is water.



15 Responses to “Will Hoover Dam go Bust?”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Spectacular “twisted movie physics” in the San Andreas clip—-but why quibble—it’s only “entertainment” for the mindless and clueless, right? If actors in other movies can outrun explosions, survive bone-crushing car crashes and beatings, and stand amid a hail of bullets without being hit, it’s no big deal for them to be able to stand up and outrun an earthquake that is shaking apart something as substantial as the Hoover Dam.

    It’s also heartening to know that the folks in denial in the SW are making sure that they will have electricity up to the bitter end (that’s when the water runs out and they can no longer flush their toilets). Yes, upgrade them turbines, folks—-wouldn’t want you to lose electricity and be unable to watch Fox News, the shopping networks, and the Kardashians—or listen to Rush on the radio.

    Ramifications indeed!

  2. Tom Bates Says:

    the snow pack in the series of watersheds that fed into the dam are at 138 percent of normal. When they melt as they are, the dams upstream of this dam will fill and eventually so will this dam. The article is basically a distortion of reality. The west had a drought, it is over.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        No, no, Lionel. Don’t startle Tommy while he’s up the ladder picking cherries—-he might fall and hurt himself.

        I am still chuckling at his cluelessness in believing that ONE year with a 138% of “normal” snow pack in the watersheds will FILL the dams upstream AND Lake Mead.

        That’s in the face of the DROUGHT that has been going on for years and the drawdown of Mead that has been going on for decades. Self-delusion is an amazing thing, and if Tommy isn’t a POE, he is certainly deluding himself.

    • otter17 Says:

      So, one year of increased snowpack fills a reservoir that has been receiving substantially less snowpack melt for several years? My back-of-the envelope math says you are full of it, at least until you provide some expert analysis on the region saying corroborating your claim. What is your source to claim that this year the reservoir will fill? What is your source to claim that the article is a distortion of reality?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Asking Tommy to provide a source? You jest, of course.

        We all know that Tommy’s info is PFTA (Plucked From Thin Air), or in his case, Plucked From Tommy’s (Anal Orifice).

        I still believe Tommy may be a POE troll who is amusing himself by commenting here—-nobody could be that stupid.

        • Unable to do the most elemental Google search for watershed information, are we? Unable to spot official government recordings of information showing the last 15 years’ worth of near, at or above average snow pack in the areas feeding water into the Colorado? Unable to perceive the difference between water allocation between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, along with California / AZ irrigation demand outstripping water supply no matter what the snow accumulation happens to be?


          Remember, friends, it does not matter what you believe, it only matters what you can prove.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yes, Russell PROVES to all of US once again that he has no business coming on Crock and trying to bullshit us. He’s not very good at it. Russell again proves that he is a devious and lying POS with the question—-“Unable to spot official government recordings of information showing the last 15 years’ worth of near, at or above average snow pack in the areas feeding water into the Colorado?”

            First, note that Russell talks about “the last 15 years”, when Lake Mead has been in decline for ~30 years. (Sort of like the cherry-picked temperature “pause”?).

            Second, note that Russell has given us a link to a data set that only shows river basins in the state of Colorado, and ignores the rest of the Colorado River basin that lies in Utah and Wyoming.

            Third, the data in tabular form is hard to analyze, and the data about the Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande basins is of course irrelevant, since they drain eastward and not into the Colorado River.

            One needs to go to the the bottom of the page and access the bar graphs for each river basin. If one looks at them, one will find that the “entire Colorado River basin” (the part that lies in Colorado, that is) has indeed had lower than “median” snow pack for 9 of the 30 years since 1986, and that’s about the time Lake Mead began its decline.

            Russell’s maundering about “allocation and irrigation demand” is just another of Russell’s typical attempts to deflect, distract, and obfuscate. We’re talking about drought, reduced snow pack, and reduced snow meltwater, Russell—-that’s what this post is all about. A couple of good years is not likely to make a long-term difference in the face of the huge “allocation and demand” problem.

            PS Glad to see that you didn’t get too greedy and gave yourself only one thumb up for this comment If any more than that appear, we’ll know you were again HACKING WordPress.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Sure it is, Tommy. It’s so “over” that you should now be a good little capitalist and buy up property in the SW. Just think of how rich you will get, and how much $$$$ you will be able to leave your grandchildren! LMAO!

  4. Jim Housman Says:

    Wow. One depressing bit in the picture that nobody mentioned was the spread of the uban area next to the dam. I’m pretty sure that’s Las Vegas and the growth of the city since 1985 acts in the picture as a symbol of the continued growth in the southwest and Pacific area.

    The combination makes the situation even more grim

    • otter17 Says:

      Yeah, comparing with other sat images, that would be Las Vegas. Boom and bust has happened for some ghost towns in the American west in the past, but never a Las Vegas or Phoenix size city. Maybe a combination of water conservation, water usage efficiency technologies, and some luck on the speed of change in the region might allow Vegas to hang in there for some time. Or maybe borrow stillsuits from Arakis if some in denial get there way and go through with a pure adaptation-only route.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Stillsuits from Arakis? YES!! And that nice couple from Idaho that have a job for life with Solar Roadways (and soon to be Solar Runways for those electric planes) can expand their product line to include still suits.

        Dune is an allegorical-metaphorical-analogous (too early in the AM to think hard enough to pick the best descriptor) masterpiece that says much about what’s going on here on Earth. Too bad more folks have not read it and understood its underlying themes.

        Those greedy conservatives that promote building cities in deserts like Las Vegas and Phoenix (and LA) care for nothing but the opportunity to make $$$$—–once the SHTF and the desert cities start to go under they will be sorry if their efforts to shrink the government have made it impossible for the government to bail them out (and you know they’ll clamor for a bailout).

        Rather ironic, as is Grover Norquist’s cry to “shrink the government down until we can drown it in a bathtub”. Once the water runs out, they may have to change that a bit to “….smother it under a few wheelbarrow loads of sand”.

        (PS Boom and bust in the American West has been mainly due to the exhaustion of whatever resource caused the “boom”, as in the countless mining towns that grew from zero to many thousands and back to a few hundred in a decade or two. This “water bust” is going to be something new)

  5. audreykinley Says:

    I never knew that the water levels were lowest in June or July. I guess it would make sense though because of all the heat, and hardly any rain. I wonder if watching over the Hoover is scary at all. It’d be scary if that dam broke. I wonder how often they hire people to patch it up. http://www.tluckey.com/transportation-public-works

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: