Document Type

Technical Report

Publication Date



United States Department of the Interior


This circular summarizes the results of recent studies of Lake Mead and its environs. Area-capacity tables, prepared on the basis of a hydrographic survey of the lake in 1948-49, show that the capacity of the reservoir was reduced 4. 9 percent during the first 14 years after Hoover Dam was completed, but the usable capacity was reduced only 3.2 percent. Practically all of this reduction was caused by accumulation of sediment in the reservoir. Studies of inflow and outflow indicate that the reservoir has a total storage capacity about 12 percent greater than that shown by the area-capacity table, because of "bank" storage, or ground-water storage in the bottom and sides of the reservoir. Thus the total capacity in 1949 was greater than the quantity shown by the original area-capacity table, even though large quantities of sediment had been deposited in the reservoir during the 14 years.

According to computations of the volume and weight of the accumulated sediment, about 2, 000 million tons were deposited in the reservoir by the Colorado River in 14 years; this is within 2 percent of the amount calculated from measurements of the suspended sediment carried by the inflowing rivers. It is estimated that the sediment capacity of the reservoir, when filled to the level of the permanent spillway crest, is about 75, 000 million tons. The sediment contributed by the Colorado River averages about 45 percent sand and 55 per-cent silt and clay.

If the sediment carried by the river in the years 1926-50 represents the long-term average rate of accumulation in Lake Mead, it will be a century before the sediment at the dam reaches the level of the lowest gates in the intake towers, and more than 4 centuries before the reservoir is filled with sediment to the level of the permanent spillway crest. The rate of sedimentation since the first year of Lake Mead (1935) has been about 20 percent lower, and if that rate continues in the future, the life of the reservoir will be correspondingly greater. Construction of upstream reservoirs to capture some of the inflowing sediment, or transportation of sediment in the outflow through Hoover Dam, would also increase the life of the reservoir.

In the first 12 years of Lake Mead, the dissolved mineral matter in the outflowing water was significantly greater than the average in the inflowing water, owing in part to solution of gypsum and rock salt from the bed of the reservoir. Currently the increased dissolved solids in the outflowing water can be accounted for almost entirely by evaporation from the reservoir, which is about 5 to 7 percent of the annual inflow. The water from Lake Mead is habitually of better quality than that diverted from the river for irrigation prior to regulation by Hoover Dam, because it represents an average of the poor water of low stages and the excellent water from melting snow.

Geodetic surveys of the Lake Mead area show that the weight of water has caused subsidence of the earth's crust amounting to about 120 millimeter at Hoover Dam, and an even greater amount in the principal area of storage in the reservoir.


Geological surveys; Reservoir sedimentation; Reservoirs--Evaluation; United States--Lake Mead


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