What if you heard about a body of water more than 300 feet deep where the sun always seems to be shining? There are launch ramps available and amenities like waterside restaurants. Sound like a place you might want to check out?
It’s Nevada’s Lake Mead. And despite reports to the contrary, boating is alive and well on the country’s largest human-made reservoir, even though it’s at 30 percent capacity.
“Our business is full,” says Bruce Nelson, director of operations at Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina. “The low water has made our marina operations more valuable because people don’t want to deal with the launch ramps.”
It’s not that people wouldn’t prefer that the levels were high, but if the general public believed what the media is reporting, the lake has dried out and you can walk from one shoreline to the other. The situation isn’t as dire, but low levels have also affected Lake Powell and Lake Tahoe, where boating remains popular.
“It’s obviously a problem,” Nelson says. “I’d sound like a kook if I said it wasn’t a problem, but the media is trashing the lake.”
A Real Problem
The public first started hearing about the levels dropping at Lake Mead in the early 2000s, when images of the white ring around the shoreline sounded the alarm on the evening news. “We were told it was a 10-year drought, and it’s been 22 years,” Nelson says. Weather experts also report that the country is in the third year of a La Niña episode that results in less precipitation than normal in the western and central parts of the country.
On June 25, according to mead.uslakes.info, the level was 1,043.52 feet, which is 185.48 feet below full pool of 1,229 feet. Conversely, nearby Lake Havasu in Arizona was at 449 feet, 4 feet above full pool levels.
Lake Mead, which is formed from the Colorado River, is used to supply water to some Native American reservations and to farms and industry in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Mexico. In July 2021, the Colorado River Indian Tribes agreed to store 150,000 acre-feet of water in the lake over three years. A single acre-foot is reportedly enough to serve one to two households per year.
In March, the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., which controls the water levels on Lake Powell, released about 500,000 acre-feet less to Lake Mead than was originally planned. The U.S. Geological Survey said that Lake Mead and the lower basin could recover the water, but it needed to be left in Lake Powell to protect that reservoir.
Two months later, on May 3, the Bureau of Reclamation announced two urgent drought response actions to prop up Lake Powell by nearly 1 million acre-feet of water through April 2023. More water will flow into the lake from upstream reservoirs, and less water will be released downstream. Under a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019, approximately 500,000 acre-feet of water will come from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is about 455 river miles upstream of the lake.
Another 480,000 acre-feet will be left in Lake Powell by reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million acre feet to 7 maf, as outlined in the 2007 interim guidelines that control operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. At full pool, Lake Powell is 3,700 feet. In late June, it was down to about 3,539 feet.
Current operating agreements for the Colorado River basin, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead, expire in 2026. The Bureau of Reclamation published a notice to start working on ways to reduce water use in the region after 2026. Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton stated in a press release: “As we focus on these short-term response actions, we also clearly recognize the importance of simultaneously planning for the longer-term to stabilize our reservoirs before we face an even larger crisis.”
Senior water resources program manager Carly Jerla added in the same release: “We’re seeking input to foster a meaningful participation of Colorado River partners and stakeholders, and to gather ideas and strategies for the post-2026 operations that should also be considered.”
Perhaps the biggest challenges for boaters have been faced by people who trailer their boats to the lakes. Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina are floating facilities. They have anchors that hold the marina in place. “We pick up and move the anchors and winch the marina out in unison, and add or take away dock sections,” Nelson says. He estimates that for every foot of lake elevation lost, about 25 to 30 feet of beach is exposed. Las Vegas Boat Harbor has about 400 feet more of beach than it had at the start of 2022. Callville Bay Marina in Overton, Nev., rents houseboats; that business is down by 30 to 35 percent.
The National Park Service said in an email to Soundings Trade Only: “Based upon the latest projections from the Bureau of Reclamation, the NPS anticipates that the reservoir’s water levels will continue to decline through the summer.”
The reduced water levels have resulted in more crowding at public ramps because four have been closed. Hemenway Harbor is the only public ramp, and it’s been reduced to two lanes on pipe mat. It’s recommended that boats 24 feet and smaller launch there, although Nelson says his company hauled a Sea Ray cruiser without any issues in late June. The only other available launch area is off a dirt road near the South Cove launch ramp. Four-wheel drive is recommended.
The NPS said in the release: “Lake Mead spent approximately $40 million on water-based public recreational access to the lake to adapt and remain operational during the Southwest’s unprecedented 20-plus year drought; many of these investments no longer function as initially anticipated, as climate change impacts are outpacing planning and construction efforts.”
Despite the challenges to use Lake Mead, the NPS says the lake continues to see high visitation. In 2021, the park was the fifth-most-visited in the United States, with 7.6 million visitors.
At Lake Powell, last year’s drop in water levels resulted in a month-long stoppage of houseboat rentals because they couldn’t be launched. Additionally, the NPS, as of late May, closed access to launch ramps in Arizona and Utah at Wahweap Stateline and Auxiliary facilities and Bullfrog Marina. Glen Canyon Public launch ramp was open in late June.
Bordering California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a natural lake controlled by the Lake Tahoe dam that releases to the Truckee River and into Pyramid Lake. Ron Williams, who owns Ski Run Boat Co. and Tahoe Boat Rentals, says that low water levels have been a problem for most of the marinas on the lake.
Williams says that Tahoe is more dependent on weather and natural conditions to rebound. Last December, there was some optimism for a respite because the snow pack in the Rocky Mountains was above average levels. Then January, February and March had record low snowfall totals. Adding insult to injury, the snow fell on the eastern side of the mountain range, which doesn’t benefit Lake Tahoe. Also, because the ground is so dry, there needs to be a consistent snow pack followed by gradual melting so the ground can absorb what it needs and then let water from the melting run down to the lake.
In late June, Williams said Lake Tahoe was down about 4 to 5 feet. “We’re still able to operate. There’s more damages that occur to boats and prop strikes,” he says, estimating that he’s spending about 10 to 15 percent more on repairs to his rental fleet.
Elie Alyeshmerni, president of the Lake Tahoe Marina Association, says the organization is looking at the long-term reality of lower water levels. “We’re anticipating, long term, to have low water, and dredging isn’t preferred because of lake clarity,” he says. “We at the marina association are cooperating in a significant way with the agencies that monitor what we do because as the lake clarity goes, so goes the tourism and the marinas.”
One trend he sees is people operating boats that have shallower draft, such as pontoons and outboard vessels. Additionally, the lower water levels have resulted in the loss of the use of some moorings that were close to shore. New shore zone ordinances have been allowed to move moorings out to deeper water.
“It hasn’t happened yet because it’s a recent shore zone ordinance, but [officials] foresaw the need to move the moorings,” Alyeshmerni says.
With the drought showing no signs of letting up, it seems as if it’s the first of many changes that boaters will see on lakes in the western United States.
This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.