LAKE MEAD, Ariz. -- A significant drought across the Southwest is taking a record toll on the Colorado River basin, and bringing Lake Mead to historically low levels.
Recent analysis shows more than half of America -- 55.4% of the lower 48 -- is in some form of drought, with a significant section of the country in severe to even extreme drought. It's a slight improvement from the 60.9% of the nation in drought last month, but considerably higher than the 45% in drought last year.
And right in the heart of the drought sits the Colorado River.
"I think sometimes it's easy to forget how many things depend on the Colorado River and both Lake Mead and Powell," said FOX Weather Meteorologist Jordan Overton. "From the electrical grid to drinking water, they are absolutely critical to our infrastructure in the west."
Water levels at Lake Mead have never been lower.
The lake is considered completely full at 1,229 feet, but its record height since records began in the 1930s was 1,225 feet in 1983.
Levels had been holding reasonably steady around 1,180 feet until the turn of the century but have been dropping since. From 2017 through 2019 water levels were flat around 1,086-1,089 feet. The lake rose 9 feet in 2020 to 1,098 feet, then began a precipitous drop.
The lake measured 1,082 feet in 2021 and with the current dry spell, the level is down to 1,057 feet- the lowest on record.
"While we’ve had a few short dips here and there, we’ve always kind of recovered," said FOX Weather Meteorologist Jane Minar. "But we’re not seeing that as well, so that’s the more drastic concern we have."
The recent dry spell tells the story. Mountain snowpacks in the areas that feed the Colorado River are running at 25-50% of normal.
"We really don't know the exact impacts continued drought will have because we've never been in this situation before," Overton said. "And it's that uncertainty that I think is most concerning.
The short-term forecasts are not encouraging. The precipitation outlook for the end of April into early May paints a bullseye over the Colorado River Basin with high confidence of continued dry weather.
And that's leading up to the dry summer season. But even if the pattern were to turn wetter, it will take a large scale change in the weather to help alleviate the drought.
"The Colorado River Basin is stuck in a 20+ year megadrought, and that's not easily fixed," Overton said. "This is a very dire situation that unfortunately can't be fixed with just one storm. You need years, of above normal rain and snow to get things back on track. Unfortunately, all the latest data is bleak, and there are many more negatives than positives."