WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling leads the special series Forecast – A Fragile Climate. In his 50 years as a meteorologist, he has seen the atmosphere do things he never thought possible. It’s what compelled him and the WGN team to travel all across the country in search of the very latest climate research and information. There is serious work underway – from tracking Earth’s vital signs to massive climate adaption projects.

In Part 1, Skilling visits his beloved Alaska, an area changing three-times faster than other parts of the world. 

In Part 2, we took you to the epicenter of Earth science, where human brain power and sophisticated instrumentation intersect in the study of our changing planet.

In the final segment, Skilling and the team head to the drought-plagued Southwest. The driest metropolitan city in the country is supplied by the largest reservoir in the nation, and it’s in deep trouble. But this is a story of innovation, and how one community went to great depths to adapt to our changing climate.

Lake Mead is located 40 miles from Las Vegas. 

Captain Ray Poulin guides visitors hoping to hook a striped bass from the basin. He’s been fishing Lake Mead waters for 27 years. In the last five, his business has nearly dried up. It’s not easy to get out on the water. There’s just one remaining launch point, and it’s a dusty extension where water once stood.

“This drought has been going on for 20 years,” he said.

Amid the rugged beauty is an ugly reminder. What’s called “the bathtub line” marks where water levels once reached. The reservoir has dropped about 170 feet since 2000.

“Nobody has seen this since the dam was built,” Poulin said. “Never been this low since they filled it.”

That was back in the 1930s, when the basin swelled from the Colorado River. Hoover Dam was constructed for power, flood control, recreation and water storage.

“It’s unbelievable,” Poulin said. “I moved here in 1996 from the great state of Maine, and I did see water flowing over the dam, over the spillway up until probably 2011. And now to see it down 170-odd feet is depressing.”

As demand grows beyond what the river can produce, Colorado River flows have plunged from the last century’s average by 20%. The past 22 years have been the driest on record in the river’s drainage basin. Climate change is warming the region and has contributed to dramatically reduced rain and winter snow. The region is in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years. Yet 40 million people rely on the natural resource. More than two million of them reside in a growing Las Vegas.

Ninety percent of the area’s water supply is pumped from the reservoir. But one intake are now exposed and no longer functional due to the historically low water levels.

Miles away in downtown Las Vegas, Deputy General Manager of Resources Colby Pellegrino makes it clear: “The future here is water conservation.”

Pellegrino says the Southern Nevada Water Authority recognized the dire situation two decades ago, when drought conditions forced their hand.

“What we are seeing may not be a drought that is temporary. It may be a permanent ecosystem, an ecological change where we are going to continue to get less precipitation, warmer temperatures; and that is fundamentally going to change our basin and the hydrology,” Pellegrino said. “We’re seeing elevations that we’ve never seen in those reservoirs. And we know climate change will continue to impact them.”

Instead of taking a gamble that levels would rise naturally, the agency took serious action.

“Climate change has affected us in quite a few ways,” she said. “Warming temperatures is the key one. We are seeing more days above 100 degrees. We anticipate that to continue to increase. We think about mid-century, we’ll add about 30 more days above 100 degrees over what we have today. All that warming leads to more water use.”

In order to adapt, they dug deeper.

“The biggest climate change adaptation project we’ve done is the construction of our third intake and low lake level pumping station,” Pellegrino said. “Climate change is going to require adaption and this is one of the biggest adaption projects in the world. These are 34 pumps that reach deeper into falling Lake Mead than ever before in order to continue to supply water to Las Vegas. This project cost $1.2 billion. That’s the most spent on a climate adaption project by any single city in the world.”

Called “The Third Straw,” the system completed in 2020, pulls water from Lake Mead even if levels drop to what’s called “dead pool” — that’s when water can no longer be released through Hoover Dam downstream to users in California, Arizona and Mexico.

“Our water supply isn’t coming locally. The Colorado River is primarily snow melt in the Rockies,” Pellegrino said. “So the biggest manifestation of the changing climate is how that changes the Colorado River’s flow. And that is why we’re working hard to bring the river a little more sustainable future. … We’re a fairly new city. So if it’s hitting a drain, it’s being captured and returned back to the Colorado River through Lake Mead.”

The bigger problem is outside and “an incredibly dry environment.”

“Nothing grows outdoors without being irrigated,” Pellegrino said.

Incentives and water restriction programs have worked to reduce consumption, even as the region explodes in population. 

“Since 2002 we’ve added about 750,000 people to this valley. We’re also using 26% less water,” Pellegrino said.

With exceptions for schools, parks and cemeteries, a natural desert landscape is favored – in some cases mandated — over high-maintenance lawns.

“Cash for grass,” Pellegrino said.  “We pay $3 per sq foot for you to remove and convert your grass.”

Golf courses have water budgets and so do casinos. Those fancy fountains at the Bellagio are nuisance ground water pumped to great heights for entertainment value, not a drain on the system.

“We don’t have a growth problem. We have a water footprint problem,” Pellegrino said.

Even with aggressive efforts in place, there’s another concern: the towering structures that surround Hoover Dam pull in water to generate power.

Forecast – A Fragile Climate Series:
Part 1: What Alaska glaciers are telling us about warming
Part 2: NASA minds and technology track the changing planet

Noe Santos knows the water. He grew up in the area. The River Operations Manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior says modern-day supply doesn’t match allocations of the past.

“What we didn’t know then but we do know now is the early 1900s were some of the wettest periods on record for the Colorado River,” he said.

Now, in much dryer times, Santos said it’s different.

“On a good year we lose about five feet of elevation with all of the different uses and inflows,” he said. “This year we’re going to be losing about 14 feet or so in elevations.”

At Hoover Dam, water creates energy for up to 450,000 households. About 50% goes to California, with Nevada and Arizona dividing the other half.

“The next chapter of the Colorado River’s history is going to be a lose-lose,” Pellegrino said. “Everyone has to use less.”