Hoover Dam, a Feat of Engineering—Lake Mead Reaching Dead Pool Catastrophic

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., has made national headlines recently.

The reservoir which lies across Nevada and Arizona is formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

And its water levels are rapidly lowering. As the water disappears, the lake is revealing a multitude of gruesome finds including four dead bodies and multiple shipwrecks.

But that is not the only reason people are watching. Its water levels are hurtling toward deadpool level.

Robert Glennon water policy and law expert and emeritus professor at the University of Arizona told Newsweek that if it did indeed reach dead pool level, it could be a catastrophe.

So what is the story of Lake Mead, and why is it so important?

Construction

The construction of Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam began in 1931, and finished in 1936.

Before it was built, the land was scarcely visited by anyone because of its extreme temperatures and harsh landscape.

Lake Mead construction
A picture shows steel bar columns amid the construction of Boulder Dam in 1931- which would soon be renamed Lake Mead. Library of Congress/Getty

Glennon said that the Hoover Dam was first approved by congress in 1928.

"The initial purpose for it was flood control. Because before then, whatever Mother Nature doled out into the mountains of Colorado and to some extent Wyoming, all that water came down which is roaring down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and then when it got through the Grand Canyon, it's spread out and it just wiped out all the farms along the river for hundreds of miles," he said. "So the farmers on both side and also Mexico, are begging us to see if they can create some sort of a dam and create flood control. So, flood control was the first reason, irrigation was second and then hydroelectric power, these were the main purposes."

Lake mead Construction
A picture shows continuing construction of Lake Mead in 1934. Library of Congress/Getty

When it came to actually constructing Hoover Dam, and subsequently Lake Mead, Glennon said it was a "feat of engineering."

"No one had ever done this sort of Dam. And it was built right in the middle of the Great Depression. And it came in, under budget and before the deadline. On the other hand, 112 men lost their lives building Hoover Dam and what the engineers who designed Hoover Dam did was really a feat of engineering," he said. "They drilled through the canyon walls on either side of the river, diversion tunnels... to divert the water around Boulder Canyon and back into the channel of the Colorado River. So they dynamited it and dug and moved everything and then when it was finally ready, they blew up the entrance to these tunnels and worked feverishly to get the water out of the main channel and into these diversion channels."

Hoover Dam
A picture shows the newly completed Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on the Colorado River, in 1935. Hulton Archive/Getty

According to Glennon, completing the crucial reservoir was not an easy feat.

The men employed to build the dam came from all around the country during the Great Depression.

"They literally built a town to house these people. They needed a railroad to move parts. They needed incredible excavation equipment to get all of the silver that was in the muddy bed out because they got down to bedrock. They needed hard bedrock to start drilling," Glennon said.

Lake Mead
A picture shows Hoover Dam overflowing in 1983, when it reached its highest water level. Bob Riha Jr/Getty

Glennon said there are videos still circulating of the workers creating Hoover Dam.

"[You can see] these workers on the side of the cliffs, just kind of bouncing around. inserting these big long drills and then plugging them with dynamite and you know; they're hanging off a cliff by a rope, and then they bounce away and the dynamite goes off. It's crazy kind of stuff," he said.

Completion

When Hoover Dam and Lake Mead were finished, it became an integral water storage system for the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.

From Lake Mead, water is distributed widely across these states.

Hoover Dam
A picture shows the Hoover Dam overflowing when water levels reached their peak in 1983. Bob Riha Jr/Getty

The lake began to fill in 1935. The water levels at this time were around 708.70 feet, according to data from the National Park Service. Water levels fluctuate over the years, until 1983, when it reached its highest point.

Since then, the levels have receded, as the Lake is drying up faster then it can replenish itself.

Lake Mead
A picture shows Hoover Dam in 1983, when the water levels were the highest they have ever been. Bob Riha Jr/Getty

Glennon noted that one of the main reasons for this is the megadrought gripping the western United States. He said another is climate change.

"Lower precipitation, increased evaporation, forest fires and a longer forest fire season that's become a forest fire year. They impair water supplies in a whole bunch of ways," he said.

Lake mead
A picture shows Lake Mead in 2022, at an area that once would have been covered with water. The water levels are the lowest they've been since 1937. Bob Riha Jr/Getty

Many experts have warned that now, as the lake's levels reach the lowest they've been since 1937—just a few years after it was constructed—it could reach a dead pool.

"[Dead pool] would be a catastrophe. It could happened, but there's no reason to to allow it to happen. We have the tools we have the skill set to to act to avoid that catastrophe," Glennon said. "There's still a heck of a lot more conservation that can be done, and that is the low hanging fruit."

Lake Mead
Many experts have warned that now, as Lake Mead's levels reach the lowest they've been since 1937, it could reach a dead pool. Above, Lake Mead drying up in 2022. The white "bathtub ring" on the rocks marks where the water would have been years ago. Ethan Miller