See what the extreme drought has unfolded in Lake Mead

part 3

Lake Mead, Nevada — Along a secluded stretch of Lake Mead’s southwest shore, a rattlesnake hovers between a cluster of rocks, just feet from the wreckage of an abandoned houseboat that’s been baked under the desert sun.

The wreckage is filled with remnants of a past life: cracked white dishes with delicate floral motifs, cups of coffee tipped off their matching saucers, a blender full of dirt. Its wooden frame is strewn with uneven rock beds, a scram of split beams and rusted engine parts strung with rope and electrical cords. A small white toilet is built on top of the ruins. Its seat – still attached to the lid – can be found below the water’s edge.

Earlier this year, the ship sank beneath the emerald waters of the lake.

But the sunken boats that once sat high and dry on the horizon are now the hallmark of the lake’s new reality as it grapples with one of America’s most dire climate crises—extreme drought in the West.

Lake Mead’s water level has dropped as a result of a decade-long “megadrought” across the region about 170 feet ft. since 2000, its shoreline recedes dramatically and exposes vast areas of dry lakebed. Some locals and longtime visitors feel this scarcity has made life on the lake the same as before. But the crisis is also attracting a new type of tourist – those who come to see what the newly exposed coastline has revealed.

First designated as a National Recreation Area in 1964, Lake Mead’s mirror-like surface and breathtaking mountain scenery attract hordes of visitors who wade across the water on boats and jet skis and walk to shore, towels in hand. As the reservoir declines to historic lows, however, the scene is much calmer than Joyce DiManno’s recollection of the sailors’ paradise.

DiManno, a longtime resident of the park’s neighborhood of Boulder City, can gaze out a wide window in her living room overlooking Lake Mead and its crown of mountains.

“We’ve been in this particular house for five years and it’s amazing to see that the water is disappearing from our front yard,” she says.

Joyce DiMano at her home in Boulder City, Nevada.
Joyce DiMano at her home in Boulder City, Nevada.
DiManno flips through the Browning photo album containing memories of the years he spent at Lake Mead.
DiManno flips through the Browning photo album containing memories of the years he spent at Lake Mead.

Seated at her kitchen table, Diamano spread out a stack of photo albums in front of her, each containing snapshots from the ’80s and ’90s, when she and her husband, Frank, religiously visited the lake.

As she combs through them, she points to snippets of weekends spent skiing and boating with friends, countless hours passed lounging in coves and beaches. Drought was far from his mind at that time.

DiMannos eventually sold his boat in 1999. In the years that followed, the couple had a front row view as many of their favorite spots were unrecognizable.

part 1

At Boulder Beach, southwest of the lake, the shoreline has receded so much that roads built to meet the water’s edge end abruptly several hundred yards above the water line. Cars laden with stacks of folding chairs, umbrellas, kayaks and food must take the bumpy off-road ride to shore, their wheels grinding on the delicate white shells that skim the dry lakebed.

A newly exposed section of shore near Boulders Beach was the site of a shocking discovery earlier this year, when the body of a decade-old homicide victim was found inside a rotting barrel, dumped far back in the 70s or 80s went. In the months that followed, several more remains were found in the receding waters, including the body of a man who drowned in 2002.

Bodies appear as water level drops in this major lake

News of the discoveries, as well as displays of artifacts such as World War II-era landing craft, have brought the reservoir’s water scarcity to national attention and attracted a motley collection of amateur treasure hunters, YouTube explorers and interesting visitors who are expected to attend. The remains that lie at the bottom of the now dried up lake.

Near the busy marina of Hemenway Harbor, the sunken wreck of the WWII-era Higgins boat has become one of the more famous antiquity rising from the retreating waters. Its ribbed frame rises from the surface like the washed-up skeleton of a prehistoric fish. The tall craft is partially charred, with its engine removed.

Emerald waters partially submerge a WW-II era boat frame near Lake Mead Marina.
Emerald waters partially submerge a WW-II era boat frame near Lake Mead Marina.

Layers of marshy water and silt hide the remainder of the boat’s U-shaped design, which Park says is still wrapped in its armored plating. Thick stripes of rust streak its body, which is studded with underwater growth and tiny shells.

Amphibious landing craft were designed to transport American troops from ships to open beaches, but boats have long been used around the park. The Park Service is unsure how or when the boat was deposited there, but the shallow spot has become a pilgrimage of sorts for curious explorers.

Another sleek vessel attracts visitors that rockets out of the ground at a gravity-defying angle. In May, the craft was partially submerged, but its engine is so firmly embedded in the loaded silt that it remains upright even as it disappears around the lakebed.

Dozens of other previously waterlogged shipwrecks now nestle among clumps of brittle brush or rest on sandy shelves created by falling edges. Most are covered with layers of dirt and underwater growth that cling to their control panels. A handful appear untouched as their bright paints glisten in the sun, seemingly unblemished by years of soaking underwater.

A buoy hangs dry from the rocks above the water.
A buoy hangs dry from the rocks above the water.
A buoy hangs dry from the rocks above the water.

The true scale of the water deficit is visible from almost every vantage point in the reservoir. Huge rock formations jutting out from the surface of the water and wallowing line the shores of the lake with a thick white stripe of sediment left by previous water levels.
Even in the distance the “bathtub ring” tied with ribbons across the mountains can be seen.

The open wall of the Hoover Dam can be seen on September 12, 2022.
The open wall of the Hoover Dam can be seen on September 12, 2022.
The open wall of the Hoover Dam can be seen on September 12, 2022.

The ring of ivory sits flush with the top of the Hoover Dam, which holds back water from the reservoir. Today, the dam’s towering turbines—which are capable of generating enough hydroelectric power for some 1.3 million people annually—rise far above the water. Without an adequate supply, they can only operate at half their capacity. If the water level drops another 100 feet, they will will no longer be able to generate electricityAccording to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Although the water level has receded to a great extent, the reservoir still provides an extraordinary playground for the millions of people who visit it every year. However, navigating the boat on water is becoming a challenge.

Since 2000, the National Park Service has spent nearly $50 million in an effort to stem the falling water line and expand boat launching ramps and other infrastructure. But despite these huge and costly adjustments, the park has been forced to close all but one ramp.

At the only remaining launch ramp in Hemenway Harbor, the water is still too shallow for large boats to enter. On busy days, wait times can go on for hours as cars block the road with boats and trailers in tow. The long, paved runway to the ramp is punctuated with signs warning of the dangers of boating in low water.

When Alan O’Neill was the park’s superintendent from 1987 to 2000, the park had nine ramps built for people to pull boats in and out of the lake, he says, noting that the park only had one ramp available. Is” sad.

He says, “Going there breaks my heart.

Alan O'Neill oversaw the Lake Mead National Recreation Area while the reservoir reached some of its full levels.
Alan O’Neill oversaw the Lake Mead National Recreation Area while the reservoir reached some of its full levels.
Signage at the Hemenway Harbor boat launch warns of low water level.
Signage at the Hemenway Harbor boat launch warns of low water level.

Although O’Neill was quick to point out that the 1.5-million-acre park still offers abundant land-based recreation throughout its towering mountains, valleys and gorges, he believes the closure of facilities will greatly enhance the visitor experience at the lake. has been interrupted. Like the launch ramp and marina.

“I’m heartbroken to look out and see how many people in our community are enjoying not only the lake but the shoreline adjacent to it,” says O’Neill, recalling the park filled with activity.

Bruce Nelson, director of operations at Lake Mead Marina in Hemenway Harbor, says news of extreme drought effects on the lake can scare off even visitors who find the view bleak.

“Everyone is convinced that Lake Mead is this big mud puddle, and it’s not,” he says, adding that even at reduced capacity, the reservoir is one of the largest in the country. “It’s still a really great lake for boating and enjoying yourself recreationally.”

Aware of how the water and ramp conditions are affecting the visitor experience, the National Park Service is holding several public meetings this month and working on a plan to accommodate boating when the reservoir recedes.

Recent federal projections show that reservoir levels are expected to continue declining over the next two years, approaching “dead pool” levels where the dam is unable to release water downstream. The dire forecasts have already prompted federally mandated water cuts for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. California would soon follow.

Still, further reductions will be necessary to preserve the Lake Mead and Colorado River basins. However, fractious negotiations between states, tribes, cities and farmers have been exhausting as they decide who will impose the biggest sanctions.

But if states can’t commit to making substantial water cuts, the federal government’s patience may soon run out. The US Department of the Interior is preparing to take actions of its own, which may include limiting water seepage downstream from the reservoir to prevent it from getting closer to the dead pool level.

Although Joyce Dimano no longer boats the reservoir, she still comes by occasionally to take a walk on the wide shore. She hopes the lake will avoid reaching crisis levels, but she doubts it will ever regain the vibrant look she remembers.

“Will it ever be what it was? No,” she says. “I really feel we had the golden years of boating. It was wonderful.

A boat sits on a sandy shelf that is exposed by receding water.
A boat sits on a sandy shelf that is exposed by receding water.

“We never thought we’d see anything (what) we’re seeing at this moment,” DiManno says.

As the water continues to recede, unexpected remnants of the reservoir’s past are unveiled. But in depths that can extend hundreds of feet deep, decades of artifacts remain submerged.

In the northern Overton Arm of the reservoir, the heavy frame of a bomber aircraft rested on the lake bottom for 74 years, after a critical miscalculation of the aircraft’s altitude caused a B-29 Superfortress to crash into the surface and sink to the lake bottom.

Once more than 200 feet below the surface, this place has been an extraordinary excursion for divers. But after the water level at the site dropped nearly 100 feet, the park banned diving entirely this year while it determines how to preserve the historic relic in the increasingly shallow waters.

After decades of being submerged in the depths of the lake, the aircraft’s aluminum body has become infested with colonies of invasive mussels. Inside the damaged cockpit, a parachute became stuck, stretched between the seats, while the crew members safely evacuated.

The future of B-29 and the critical waters around it remain unknown. But for now — and with each passing year — Lake Mead’s underwater curiosities creep closer to the surface.

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