Lake Mead braces for lowest levels since 1965

From our pals at the Las Vegas Sun:



On the concrete launch ramp of Boulder Harbor, where a marina once docked boats at Lake Mead, National Park Service spokesman Andrew Munoz points to a thin strip of land that protrudes almost a foot out of the water.

“See that?” he asks. “A week ago, if you were to stand on that finger of land, you would be knee deep in water.”

Lake Mead’s elevation has dropped to 1,103 feet above sea level, and by July, the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that it will be at 1,092, its lowest level since 1965, when Colorado River water was being retained upstream to fill Lake Powell in Arizona.

Rough asphalt installed in the 1960s to help boats reach the lake at the previous low-water mark at Boulder Harbor is visible at the end of the concrete launch ramps. Munoz points in the distance to a wooden structure hanging over a small bluff. It used to be a fishing pier, he says.

After nine years of drought, the Lake Mead National Recreational Area is preparing for another year of moving ramps, marinas and other facilities, chasing the shoreline as it recedes.

Echo Bay Marina in the northern part of Lake Mead began preparations Thursday to tow the docks to deeper water, Munoz said. The marina will close from April 26 through May 5, but boat owners who use the slips will be shuttled from shore to their vessels, Munoz and marina employees said. Boat rentals will still be available by reservation, Munoz said.

Temple Bar Marina on the Arizona side will also close soon to move it to deeper water, Munoz said.

At Boulder Harbor, pipe matting made of corrugated steel will be laid over the dirt where the concrete launch ramp ends, to prevent vehicles and vessels from creating potholes at the water’s edge, he said. That will be a temporary fix while a contract is sought to extend the launch ramp yet another time.

In addition, park rangers continually move buoys and other navigational aids to help boaters avoid an unpleasant run-in with a rock or other obstruction that used to be well below the water’s surface.

The work is expected to cost the park service $10 million, and the marinas are expected to put another $1 million into the move, he said.

These changes are part of the larger story of the drought that has gripped the Southwest.

Fourteen months ago, Lake Mead Marina, which used to occupy Boulder Harbor and was known as a place where tourists and children could feed popcorn to carp, pulled up its anchors and was floated down the shore to Hemenway Harbor.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which draws 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply from two intake pipes in Lake Mead, is racing the falling water levels to complete a third intake that will preserve its ability to fill Las Vegas’ water needs, spokesman J.C. Davis said.

One of the intake pipes will lose its ability to draw water when the lake reaches 1,050 feet elevation, a level that the Bureau of Reclamation is not predicting in its two-year forecast, Davis said.

The Water Authority has drawn a line in the sand at 1,000 feet, he said. That’s the lowest level the second intake and the new intake will be able accommodate, he said. Before the lake reaches that point, the states that depend on Colorado River water have agreed to renegotiate the way water is divided, Davis said.

The current low-water level can be traced upstream, Davis said. The snow pack in the Rocky Mountains was 82 percent of normal, which is better than the average of 67 percent over the past several years, he said.

If there had been more, he said, the water level of Lake Powell might have reached a high enough level that more water would have been released to Lake Mead.

In addition, he said, the growing season in California and Arizona is beginning, and orders are coming in for agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the water taken out of Lake Mead. Because of that cycle, summer is when the lake always reaches its annual low-water mark, Davis said.

Still, it’s discouraging to boaters like Jesse Keenan, who was pulling his boat in from an outing at Boulder Harbor Thursday morning.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “It’s like a martini glass. You take one sip at the top and it’s no big deal. When you get to the bottom, each sip is a big deal.

“We didn’t used to have a problem. Now, are you kidding me?”

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the area of Lake Mead referenced as Boulder Harbor.