Environmental Blog – Lake Mead

Jason Johnson

Environmental Blog

Applied Social Psychology

September 26, 2015




This environmental blog introduces Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, as an important natural resource for people living in Nevada, California, Arizona, and parts of Northern Mexico.  Lake Mead was created when Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s; it is an important source of water and power to neighboring states.  Lake Mead is at unprecedented low levels currently, due to increased usage and reduced incoming supply from reduced rainfall and snowfall.  Some of the ways this issue is currently being addressed in Nevada include imposed water restrictions, tax credits for desert-friendly landscaping, and a proposed project to build a tunnel under Lake Mead to access outside sources of water.  Lake Mead is a beautiful and valuable resource that deserves to be protected and appreciated by residents and visitors alike.


Keywords: behaviorism, water restrictions, population density, formal design, social dilemmas, resource dilemmas


When most people think about Las Vegas and its surrounding desert, one of the first things that don’t come to mind is the valuable energy and water resources it provides to millions of users throughout the southwest. Instead, we think of the neon lights, slot machine jackpots, and endless amounts of entertainment which people may or may not remember, or, in some cases, would soon want to forget. But amid the bright lights, there is a hidden gem that makes its presence just outside the City of Sin.  It is simply known as Lake Mead. You’re probably more familiar with Lake Mead’s creator – the Hoover Dam. In the early 1900’s, Hoover Dam was built in an attempt to solve the Colorado River’s overflow problem. The construction of the Hoover Dam took about 5 years to complete, starting in 1931 and ending in 1936 (Arizona-Leisure.com; 2015).  It took the efforts of over seven thousand workers to complete the project. What developed from the creation of the Hoover Dam was a water reservoir known today as Lake Mead. Lake Mead is over 247 miles in area and covers more than 550 miles of shoreline. Its 1 ¼ trillion cubic feet of water capacity would cover the entire state of Pennsylvania one foot deep (Arizona-Leisure.com; 2015).  In this blog, I will give you some reasons why Lake Mead is such a valuable resource, some of the concerns that are going on with Lake Mead today, and discuss many of the efforts going on to sustain, and increase, the level of water that has been lost over the recent years.


Lake Mead actually began as a settlement back in the mid-1800s.  As time went on, the rising waters from the Colorado River began to force the settlers out and the community became deserted by the turn of the century.  So why is Lake Mead such a valuable resource? Many believe that the southwest region of our country wouldn’t have developed without the water and energy that has been provided by Lake Mead. Lake Mead is the water supply for Nevada, Arizona, California, and parts of Mexico (Holden; 1998).  Also, with the combination of the Hoover Dam, it’s the primary resource for providing electrical power to Nevada and southern California. About 500,000 homes rely on this power supply (Holden; 1998). Overall, it is estimated that over 25 million users are dependent on the resources that it provides (Holden; 1998).


With an understanding of why Lake Mead is important, it makes sense why so many people are worried about the lake’s current conditions. To be able to understand the negative effects, you must first need to know how Lake Mead receives its water intake.  Ninety-six percent of the water flowing into Lake Mead comes from snowmelt that drains into the Colorado River (Allen; 2003). The water is first sent to Lake Powell (just north, in Arizona) then into Lake Mead. Water levels are usually at its highest during the springtime, and at its lowest during the end of summertime.  Typically you would need a median level of input and output for the process to become successful.  Unfortunately for the last several years there has been a shortage of rainfall throughout the west, and the levels of water usage have increased throughout those same years.  All of this has sent the water levels at Lake Mead to historic lows.  Lake Mead is experiencing some of the lowest water levels in over 60 years (Shine; 2015).


With more water going out then coming in, water levels are going down while levels of usage and other problems are going up. When there’s discussion about a drought, usually the word “restrictions” follows. I’ve been living in Las Vegas (90% of our water comes from Lake Mead) now for about 15 years and I can’t remember a time that I didn’t hear about some type of water restriction being in effect.  Restrictions are usually designed to not only achieve objectives and results, but to change behavior as well.  One of the most common and impactful restrictions in Las Vegas has to do with landscaping care.  If you are one of the homeowners who have decided against the rock & sand landscape and have added actual grass for your viewing and recreational pleasure, you will be required to comply with year-long water restrictions. In fact, the city has also implemented such strategies as given tax credit to those with “rock landscape” and has even restricted front yard lawns all together.  Much of this is an attempt to change our behavior regarding water usage, but studies have shown that the problem doesn’t solely rely on this.  In fact, recent studies have shown that the city has made improvements in water efficiency, using about 40 percent less water per person over the past 25 years (Holthaus; 2014). So the problem doesn’t seem to be solely based on behavior, but rather, that the lake has unsuccessfully been able to accommodate the increased population density that has occurred during that time.  In the past 10 years alone, Las Vegas and its surrounding regions witnessed a population “boom.” It might have been great for the economy, but it also has had a negative impact on the environmental resources needed to sustain a consistent living community. With both social and resource dilemmas intensifying, the city has scrambled to put together a formal design to improve the conditions of Lake Mead and to not just solely rely on the other natural resources such as rain and snow to refill Lake Mead.  One of the projects that is in development is an artificial tunnel project that over 800 million dollars has been budgeted for, which would run along the bottom of the lake (Holthaus; 2014).  The tunnels would be used carry in water from outside resources to sustain the levels of Lake Mead.  Many locals are trying to be optimistic that this could be the right solution even though the project has been over budget and past its deadline.   And of course, there is limited data available on the success of this type of strategy, so there are no other results with which to measure its success.


I have discussed the history behind Lake Mead and why it’s such a valuable resource to many in the southwest region.  I’ve also shared today’s concerns and some of the efforts that have been implemented to restore the lake, and get it back to its original form. Not all environmental issues can be solved only with behaviorism; sometimes an alternative solution just has to be implemented. I’m hoping that I gave you a different perspective of what Las Vegas truly has to offer besides an opportunity to accumulate new found wealth, new found debt, and/or a new found two-day hangover.  The next time that you plan your trip to Las Vegas, I invite you to give yourself an opportunity to stand up from the gaming tables, step outside the casinos, and take a trip to see Lake Mead- really one of the true wonders of the world.



Conor Shine, Las Vegas Sun; August 14, 2015

Arizona – Leisure.com, The Treasure of Arizona, Nevada & the World; 2015

Chris Holden, Bureau of Reclamation Lake Mead Water Quality Monitoring; 1998

Jesse Allen, Drought Lowers Lake Mead; 2003

Eric Holthaus, The Thirsty West: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas; March 18, 2014


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