As of late July, experts said an unprecedented 90 to 100 percent of the West was enduring a record-setting drought. Conditions in some regions had reached the most severe levels that drought-monitoring models recognize, with nowhere left to go on the scale to even try and describe what’s happening in terms of prolonged water-supply shortages and drier-than-normal conditions.

Despite low water, the 
Bridgewater Channel canal off 
Lake Havasu remains a popular spot.

Despite low water, the Bridgewater Channel canal off Lake Havasu remains a popular spot.

Instead of much-needed rainfall, announcements about boat-ramp problems and closures seemed to be dropping from the sky — even beyond the far-western states — with much of the summer boating season yet to come. The severity of water-level reduction at lakes in Utah, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Illinois and elsewhere was making it impossible for the authorities to maintain normal water access, despite season-long efforts.

“Water levels in some areas are very low, which makes it difficult to navigate even the smallest and lightest of watercraft,” Conservation Police Chief Rafael Gutierrez of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said as the state urged boaters to exercise caution at ramps and in skinnier-than-usual waters. “We have started to receive calls from boaters who have been in areas where they have had no trouble in the past but are now becoming stranded because of the shallow water.”

The severity of the drought, by late July, had reduced the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, to record-low water levels — just two among a startling number of developments that showed just how extreme the conditions had become. Wildfires were torching more than a million dried-out acres. An increasing number of bears were showing up at the campgrounds in California’s Sequoia National Park, with natural food and water resources drying up. The human food supply, too, was struggling, with projections for wheat production being down 41 percent, and with Pacific Northwest farmers seeking financial aid after the sun cooked raspberries and blueberries on their bushes before they could be harvested.

On Lake Powell, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area banned the launching of houseboats from one ramp following numerous problems during recent launches, as well as predictions that water evaporation would soon overtake ramp extensions that have been used to mitigate the drought conditions so far. Officials said that as of late July, only 60 feet of temporary ramp would remain accessible to boaters trying to launch. At a couple of ramps, non-motorized vessels were the only types able to launch at all.

“It is imperative that boaters check the park’s website about the status of preferred launch destinations before heading to the lake,” officials announced, adding that because of “ongoing effects of climate change-induced drought, lower water levels are forecast to impact Lake
Powell for the foreseeable future.”

Despite these challenges, owners and staff at numerous marinas and dealerships told Soundings Trade Only that they’re managing to keep operations going, with slips still packed and boaters still getting out on the water daily. From Lake Havasu Marina in Arizona to Taylor’s Boats in Utah, which is surrounded by about a dozen lakes, reports were that the water might be low, but there’s still enough of it. Docks were being moved, and ramps were being extended, but the marinas were full, and work-arounds were, well, working — at least for now.

Ramp extensions are used to mitigate low water at Lake Mead’s Las Vegas Boat Harbor. 

Ramp extensions are used to mitigate low water at Lake Mead’s Las Vegas Boat Harbor. 

“We have low water, but we still have enough to survive,” said one worker at Grant Lake Marina in June Lake, Calif. “We’re about leveled off, and we should be OK, but if it goes any further, we’d have to close our boat ramp.”

Bob Gripentog, owner at Las Vegas Boat Harbor on Lake Mead, says he’s seeing the drought create a tale of two boaters in that part of Nevada. The first type is the boater whose ride is already in a slip at a marina. Those boaters have no issues going cruising, but “they have to be careful because the lake looks different. Places they went last year are maybe not places they can go to this year because the levels are different.”

The second type is the boater who trailers in and out of the lake. Those folks, Gripentog says, are struggling to get on the water at all, with many of Lake Mead’s ramps shut down and a crush of people at the few that are still open. “There’s fairly long lines and difficulty getting in and out,” he says. “There’s not the amount of launch ramps that there would normally be.”

It’s not that drought conditions are new, but that the severity is unusual, Gripentog adds. The Rocky Mountains, whose snowpack ends up as water in Lake Mead, have been dealing with drought for years. Temporary relief can come, he says, but it’s never enough to get things back to normal. Thus, marina staff and boaters are used to making adjustments. This year is different because they’re starting to run out of room for making those adjustments.

“We can overcome it to get people into the water. They’re still able to go boating,” he says. “But it’s more difficult than it’s been in a long, long time. We’re at levels lower than we have seen.”

Low water on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. 

Low water on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. 

Even so, he says, the challenge of the drought is still not as debilitating as the continued supply-chain issues stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic’s crush of buyer demand and inventory reduction. In addition to serving as a marina, Las Vegas Boat Harbor is a dealer for multiple pontoon and cruising-boat brands.

Gripentog says he’s having far more problems getting inventory to sell than handling the low water levels on the lake. “Everything we have is being sold before we get it, and we’re only getting partial deliveries of what we order,” Gripentog says, adding that news about the drought was still easier to take than backorder notices. “It’s news we can live with, but not news we want to continue to live with.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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