In the 15 years since Adam Dailey began boating on Lake Mead, the shoreline has receded hundreds of feet, the result of more than two decades of harsh drought drying out the western United States.
Launch sites that lined the lake’s edge outside of Las Vegas have been abandoned, and a single ramp is now the only way to get a boat in the water.
“We used to have more. So everyone’s struggling to use a ramp…still trying to figure out how to get by,” Dailey said.
“It’s kind of sad what’s going on. But we still get out there and try to enjoy it when we can.”
Lake Mead is the United States’ largest reservoir, a vast man-made body of water created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the early 1930’s.
Its 247 square miles (640 square kilometers) of land stores water for tens of millions of people and countless acres of farmland in the Southwest.
But it’s shrinking at a frightening rate and is now only a quarter full.
The National Park Service (NPS), which manages access to the lake, has spent more than $40 million since 2010 trying to keep the water open to boaters.
It costs them $2 million to $3 million to reconfigure the boat ramp every time the water level drops another four feet.
“Declining water levels due to climate change and 20 years of drought have altered the park’s shorelines,” the NPS says on its website.
“As Lake Mead continues to recede, expanding the launch pads will become more difficult and expensive due to the topography and projected decline in water levels.”
– bathtub ring –
A number of NPS signs show the shoreline at various locations since 2001. The sign marking the 2021 level is 300 paces from the water.
The backflowing water leaves bottles, cans, fire extinguishers and other debris in the mud that somehow ended up overboard in years past.
The rocks that form the hard edges of the reservoir clearly show how far the water level has dropped.
A white band of mineral deposits tints the mountainsides like the rim of a bathtub, showing where the water peaked after a 1983 flood.
“We used to have water ski races here,” Jaxkxon Zacher told AFP.
“And the island – just the tip… was out 25 years ago. Now we can’t even race here. It’s going down drastically.”
The growing islands in the middle of the lake hint at the uneven topography of the flooded valley – and the dangers that await.
“Every day somebody rips down a driveway because last week where there wasn’t a rock it’s a foot or two deep now so things are exposed,” said boat dealer Jason Davis.
“You have houseboats that are beached and stuck and people are tearing down their lower units.”
And with ships that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a weekend getaway can become a costly mistake.
– A new job –
For some people, the risk of an accident and the sheer hassle of having to wait so long for a boat to get in and out of the water at the end of the day means Lake Mead is no longer a viable recreational option.
Below Hoover Dam, stretches of river remain relatively unscathed by falling water levels.
At Willow Beach, just across the state line in Arizona, kayakers splash in the shallows, firing water guns at each other as the 104-degree sun beats down on them.
A small marina there offers Steve McMasters a place to stage his pontoon not far from his home in Boulder City.
“It can take four to five hours to get your boat out of the water (at Lake Mead) on weekends, so this is a big deal,” he said.
“I’ve been waiting on a waiting list for about four months to get it. I was lucky here.”
Climatologists say two decades of drought is not uncommon in the western United States, but combined with human-caused global warming, is transforming the region.
Higher temperatures mean less moisture falls when there is snow on the Rocky Mountains, and the snowpack that forms melts faster.
This leaves the Colorado River without the slow and steady flow that sustained it year-round in the centuries and millennia before the region was settled.
Lake Mead is climatically a baby; has existed for less than 90 years.
But in human terms, it’s disappearing at an amazing rate.
Jason Davis, the boat dealer, says more people need to see the stark changes for themselves.
“If you didn’t come to see these rings, you know you don’t quite get it,” he said.
And if the water keeps dripping?
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