Lake Mead, United States, Jul 3, 2022 (AFP) – The largest water reservoir in the United States is a popular spot for swimming or boating. But, punished by climate change, fewer and fewer boats are sighted in Lake Mead.
“It’s sad what’s happening. But we keep coming back and trying to enjoy it while we can,” says Adam Dailey, whose boat has been navigating the waters of this reservoir between Nevada and Arizona for 15 years.
During that time, Dailey saw the reservoir’s shoreline recede hundreds of feet as a result of more than two decades of intense drought in the western United States.
The dramatic reduction in the volume of water rendered several of the docks that served the reservoir unusable. This summer, boats can only access Lake Mead via a single ramp.
“We used to have more. Now we struggle to use the only ramp that goes into the water. We’re still figuring out how to organize ourselves,” explains Dailey.
The massive Lake Mead was artificially formed after the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
Its surface of 640 km2 stores water for tens of millions of people and countless hectares of plantations in the southwestern United States.
But it is shrinking at a frightening rate and is now only a quarter of its capacity.
The National Park Service (NPS), which manages the reservoir, has spent more than $40 million since 2010 trying to keep it open for navigation.
Every time the lake level drops by 1.2 meters, the agency must shell out $2 million to $3 million to reconfigure the docks.
“Reduced water levels due to climate change and 20 years of drought have transformed the park,” the NPS explains on its website.
– Expensive mistake – NPS has put up signs showing how far the waterline has receded since 2001. Walking from the original mark to the new line takes a few minutes. Last year alone, the level went back 300 steps.
As it dries, bottles, cans, fire extinguishers and other debris appear. The stone walls of the reservoir clearly illustrate how much the water level has dropped.
A white band of mineral sediments shows the maximum level after a flood in 1983.
“We used to water ski here,” Jaxkxon Zacher tells AFP.
Zacher explains how the drought transformed the reservoir by exposing huge islands, as the valley flooded to create the lake had an uneven topography.
“Twenty-five years ago, only the tip was exposed (…) The water is falling drastically”, laments Zacher, highlighting how dangerous sports activity has become in the place.
“Every day someone has a problem with their boat, because the water drops about a foot, and where there were no rocks, now there are several exposed,” says Jason Davis, who sells boats.
And with boats that can cost thousands of dollars, a weekend trip can be an expensive mistake.
For some, the risk of an accident added to the long wait to put a boat in the water makes Lake Mead an unfeasible option for a tour.
Meteorologists say two decades of drought is not unheard of in the western United States, but combined with global warming, the region is transforming.
Higher temperatures mean less moisture in the form of snow in the Rocky Mountains, the mountain range system in western North America. It also makes the snow melt faster. This slowly but steadily reduces the tributaries that have fed the Colorado River for centuries.
In climate terms, Lake Mead is a baby that has been around for less than a century. But in human terms, it is disappearing at an astonishing rate.
Jason Davis believes the way to understand the region’s dramatic transformation is to see it with your own eyes.
If the water continues to dry up, this ship trader already sees the immediate impact on his life: “I’m going to need a new job.”