Come Play in Lake Mead’s Puddle

Yes, the water level is low and the bathtub ring is startling, but Lake Mead remains open for business


Summertime has always been about escape. As children, we escape the horrors of homework for afternoon play. As adults, we escape our homes for picnics in the park and exotic vacations. And as Las Vegans, we often like to escape our scorching Valley by cooling off in the oasis that is Lake Mead, part of the national recreation area that draws more than 6 million visitors a year—more than the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty and those stone-faced dudes on the side of Mount Rushmore.

But like Tom Brady or pretty much any “celebrity” on Dancing With the Stars, Lake Mead is facing an image problem. The nation’s largest reservoir hit a record low of 1,079.76 feet in late April, triggering an onslaught of negative attention from national media. “The news is bone-dry bad,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “Supply is shrinking fast,” said NPR. Several other outlets have reported that if the water continues to slip, mandatory rationing—now a reality in California—will take effect in Arizona and Southern Nevada. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is already building a “third straw” intake valve to pull from record-low depths.

It’s unsettling news, especially with our hottest months fast approaching. But what does it all mean for our summertime escape?

For starters, Lake Mead spokeswoman Christie Vanover says luring visitors is “more challenging this year than ever.” This is partly because of the negative national press, and partly because of the lake’s appearance. Gail Kaiser at the Las Vegas Boat Harbor told The New York Times: “We take calls from all over the world from people who think Lake Mead is a mud hole.” It isn’t—at least, not yet. The reservoir still contains 290 square miles of water.

Even so, the thick white calcium “bathtub ring” around the mountains is an ominous reminder of what’s now gone—more than 140 feet of water in the last 15 years. After an April visit, travel blog Desert Survivor wrote that “the telltale rings and increased distance from the developed areas made it seem like a place that is past its prime.” (Again, much like Dancing With the Stars.)

Beyond the cosmetic issues, the recreation area is also dealing with very tangible consequences of receding water along the shores. Because of that, Vanover says accessing the lake will be “a little more difficult” this summer. In fact, the water levels are such that existing boat ramps—which were last lengthened about five years ago—have become ineffective.

Earlier this month, the National Park Service issued a warning that silt buildup on the ramps could cause boats to get stuck, and several lanes had to be closed because concrete planks had shifted above the waterline. The good news: Construction will soon start on extending those ramps so they reach the projected new low of 1,073 feet. Over the next few years, park officials anticipate spending $5 million relocating and rebuilding amenities. Or rather, chasing waterlines.

As discouraging as all this sounds, there are actually positives to the shrinking of Lake Mead: The shore stretches farther out, new “islands” are emerging and, overall, there’s more to explore. Just last month, the National Park Service granted a permit to the Arizona-based Scuba Training and Technology. The company can now offer scuba tours of a B-29 bomber that crashed in the lake in 1948. Previously that site was open only to advanced divers, but lower water levels mean it’s safe for newbies now, too.

And while the water level is dropping fast, Vanover assures that our usual fun-in-the-sun activities—swimming, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, fishing, just dipping your toes in—are still on the summer agenda. Still, one can’t help but wonder: How much deeper can scuba divers explore? How many more islands will poke their heads above the surface? How long before boat ramps meet in the middle?

Indeed, the future looks bleak for Lake Mead recreation enthusiasts. For now, though? Vanover says play away: “It’s not the end of the world. There’s still so much water to enjoy.”