Dropping water level leaves scars at Boulder Basin

Midway between Hoover Dam and the Hacienda Hotel, located at Boulder City’s east entrance, is an overlook that offers visitors an unrestricted view of Lake Mead’s Boulder Basin. On July 4, my family and I stood along the rock wall that outlines the overlook parking lot and marveled at the changes the long-term drought has brought to Lake Mead.

Rocks that once were black, or nearly so, now are white, bleached by years spent below the lake’s surface and now exposed to the sun’s rays.

“Dad, how high was the water when you worked out here?” Sherese asked while marveling at the size of the light-colored band that forms a ring around the lake.

I pointed to a restroom built of cement and rocks. It once served those who went swimming or fishing at what was Horsepower Cove and now stands hundreds of feet from the water’s edge.

“That restroom was inundated by about 3 feet of water for the first couple of years,” I answered.

“And that is where you and I ran into those two rattlesnakes that evening we went fishing a couple of years ago,” I said while pointing to the spot where some scraggly tamarisk trees mark the edge of what was once a shaded beach but now is a bare slope far above the water.

The water level at Lake Mead is just 1,082 feet above sea level, 130 feet lower than its elevation when I first began patrolling the lake as a game warden in 1998. Then it was 1,212 feet, and it didn’t start falling until 2000, according to Bureau of Reclamation Records.

But the lake’s high water mark is higher still — 1,225.4 feet in July 1983. That summer water actually flowed over the dam’s spillway; it was an amazing site. Thirty-one years later, my family had a hard time believing that part of the story.

With the water level reaching its lowest level in nearly 40 years, the drought has added marinas and launch ramps to its list of victims. As of the holiday weekend, all but one of the available launch ramps are launching on pipe mat or concrete planks. Hemenway launch ramp was down to a single lane, but repairs are underway and the ramp is expected to be back to two lanes by this weekend.

Boulder Harbor, once home to Lake Mead Marina, has six lanes open and boaters are launching on a concrete ramp. Keep in mind that the wakeless zone extends until you exit the harbor.

There are four open lanes at Callville Bay, two with pipe mat and two with concrete mat. Luckily, parking is now available at the main ramp so boaters don’t have to climb all the way to the top of the ramp to retrieve their vehicle at the end of the day. Echo Bay has four lanes open with boaters launching on concrete planks, and Temple Bar has two lanes with pipe mat. South Cove has a single lane with pipe mat as well.

Ironically, while boaters face somewhat challenging launching conditions as a result of the drought, an active monsoonal storm flow has brought rain and high winds that have stranded boaters, swamped boats and created additional safety hazards. While the winds and the waves can be bad enough, driftwood and other floating debris is another hazard Lake Mead boaters don’t often think about.

Though the shoreline of Lake Mead has few trees, the mountains upstream are covered with pines and the streams are lined with cottonwood trees. When summer thunderstorms flare up, they often carry enough power to send fallen trees, broken limbs and other debris downstream. This eventually makes it into Lake Mead and can destroy a propeller, crack a boat hull or worse. While this is especially true in the upper reaches of Lake Mead, where the Muddy, Virgin and Colorado rivers flow into the lake, the debris can make its way into the Boulder Basin. It is a good idea to take things slow for a while and keep a good eye out for floating hazards.

While Tuesday’s storm flared up almost without warning, a wary boater can generally have a good idea that something is brewing. Check for weather updates and forecasts from the National Weather Service before and during your boating excursion. Watch for changes in wind speed or direction and keep an eye on the horizon. Our thunderstorms generally come from the south or southwest. Dark clouds building on the horizon are generally a good indicator that a storm is pending.

Oh, and those red flags you sometimes see at the launch ramp are not there to add color to the landscape. A single flag is a small craft advisory, and two flags means hang on to your hat because high winds are on their way. Think twice before you launch.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at intheoutdoorslv@gmail.com.