NASA satellite images show Lake Mead water levels plummeting to lowest point since 1937

Satellite images released by NASA this week show a dramatic drop in water levels over the past 22 years at Lake Mead.

NASA confirmed that water levels in Lake Mead, which spans Nevada and Arizona, are at their lowest since April 1937, when the reservoir was being filled for the first time.

As of Monday, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, was filled to 27% capacity, according to NASA.

The photos shared by the NASA Earth Observatory, taken in 2000, 2021 and 2022, show the lake appearing to grow shallower and shallower, even from just 2021 to 2022. The image from 2000 shows swaths of Lake Mead full of water; the image from 2022 only shows one section, known as Overton Arm, filled.

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The lake's level has fallen nearly 160 feet since July 2000 and 26 feet since July 2021.

NASA's satellite images show water levels in Lake Mead plummeting over the last 22 years.
NASA's satellite images show water levels in Lake Mead plummeting over the last 22 years.

The severity of this loss is underlined by its effect on those who have relied on Lake Mead's water for decades. The images also arrive as states throughout the West experience high levels of drought: 74% of nine Western states report some level of drought, and 35% face extreme levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"The largest reservoir in the United States supplies water to millions of people across seven states, tribal lands, and northern Mexico," NASA Earth Observatory's news release reads. "It now also provides a stark illustration of climate change and a long-term drought that may be the worst in the U.S. West in 12 centuries."

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In recent months, the lake's rapidly receding waters have revealed human bodies, ghost towns, the wreck of a B-29 Superfortress and more.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Travis Heggie, a former National Park Service official who has studied deaths at Lake Mead Recreation Area, told USA TODAY in May.

The water elevation at Hoover Dam, which formed Lake Mead, also is dropping significantly. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water elevation of Hoover Dam was almost 1,200 feet in July 2000. As of July 18 this year, it had fallen to about 1,040 feet.

The last time Lake Mead was at maximum capacity, reaching an elevation of about 1,220 feet near the dam, was in 1983 and 1999, NASA notes.

Lake Powell, which sits above Lake Mead in northern Arizona and southern Utah, is also at dangerously low levels. Similar to Lake Mead, Lake Powell is now at 27% capacity, according to NASA.

This summer, the U.S. Reclamation Commissioner warned surrounding states that the losses on the Colorado River system meant water users would need to make more immediate cuts to protect future supplies and power generation at both Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, which backs up Lake Powell upstream.

The Bureau of Reclamation will release a set of projections for 2023 in August, which could trigger even deeper cuts in water use.

Contributing: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY; Shaun McKinnon, Arizona Republic

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lake Mead: NASA photos show stunning levels of water loss since 2000