Leveling off after steady increases since early April, Lake Mead appears to have reached its peak for the year — more than 22 feet above last year.
That remarkable climb marks the end of a dizzying year and a half that brought us a body in a barrel, a speedboat sticking out of the lake bottom and at least 23 deaths just this year alone.
And we could see it all happen again.
Average daily levels computed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation show the surface of Lake Mead at 1,066.32 feet above sea level on Sept. 7. Since then, it has hovered around the same level and come down slightly, now at 1,066.25 feet as of midday Wednesday.
That beats forecasts from earlier this year when Reclamation said the lake would reach 1,065.59 by the end of September. It’s always possible Reclamation might adjust operations in a way that increases the lake level this month. It’s a simple equation: how much comes in from Lake Powell, and how much gets sent downriver through Hoover Dam? Tweaks to operations at the dams could change the picture.
Recent fluctuations in releases from Hoover Dam have all been within normal ranges, according to Reclamation spokesman Doug Hendrix.
“Hoover operators coordinate in real time with the Western Area Power Administration to generate energy when it is most needed in the southwestern market. High volume water releases will occur when there is higher power demand,” Hendrix said. “Low releases will occur when there is not a significant demand on the system and energy prices are low.”
At this point, Lake Powell has resumed typical operations. Graphs showing the level at Lake Powell — 3,573.69 feet on Monday — indicate that releases slowed down over the past week. That’s contributing to the overall picture, but it takes a couple of days for water leaving Glen Canyon Dam to reach Lake Mead. Since July 8, releases from Glen Canyon have driven Lake Mead’s level up, while Lake Powell followed a seasonal summer trend of decline.
The end result: Lake Mead is 34% full nearing the end of the 2022-23 “water year,” which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year. Lake Powell is 38% full.
A repeat of the record snowpack this winter would help the Colorado River tremendously. The drop in water levels in the previous water year was erased at Lake Powell, but not quite at Lake Mead.
But banking on something as uncertain as the weather is part of the reason we’re here in the first place. Scientists have been warning about the effects of climate change for a long time, and parts of Southern Nevada are still in drought conditions. Arizona is worse, and parts of New Mexico are still under extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The highlights — and lowlights — of Lake Mead over the past year and a half:
BOAT RAMPS: The National Park Service has had a constant job of adjusting boat ramps over recent years as the drought took its toll on the lake. Aside from frequent updates as conditions change, boat ramps were at the center of two additional stories recently. At the end of August last year, Lake Mead officials discovered an unapproved boat ramp operating near Echo Bay. Two years ago, the South Cove launch ramp had to be closed (it’s no longer operating) as the National Park Service hauled heavy equipment out of the lake after it went off the end of the ramp.
BODY IN A BARREL: On May 1, 2022, boaters found a body in a barrel near Hemenway Harbor. The discovery was the first of four sets of skeletal remains found at the lake over the next five months.
LOWEST LEVEL: On July 27, 2022, the lake hit its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s, dipping to 1,041.71 feet above sea level. Within a month, the lake level rose more than 2 1/2 feet. As 2023 began, a very wet winter changed the picture entirely, rebuilding water in the Colorado River basin. Forecasts at the time showed that Reclamation expected Lake Mead to drop below 1,020 feet in July of 2023.
HENDERSON WATER: When the water dropped below 1,050 feet last year, it set off a big problem as some intake pipes that worked for years were no longer able to pull water from Saddle Island. Henderson’s water supply relied on that pipeline, but the city had to adjust and buy its water from the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The Basic Water Company declared bankruptcy when the pipeline went dry. Today, even though the lake is more than 15 feet higher than the intake pipe, Henderson continues to buy 100% of its water from SNWA, according to a Henderson spokesperson.
VERTICAL SPEEDBOAT: On May 23, Nexstar’s KLAS reported on a boat that had been submerged for years in the Government Wash area of the lake. The “vertical speedboat” or “Lake Mead monolith” became a symbol of the ongoing drought’s effect on the lake. Within two months, the boat was on dry land as the lake level plunged. Now, the bow of the boat is barely above water as the lake levels off.
MONSOON DAMAGE: A couple of days before Tropical Storm Hilary found its way to Southern Nevada in August, a monsoon storm dealt heavy damage to Las Vegas Boat Harbor. Owners estimate the storm did more than $1 million in damage to docks and other facilities that serve the boating community.
DEADLY YEAR: By the time Labor Day arrived, the National Park Service was urging visitors to pay attention to safety concerns. “We have had 23 fatalities and many serious incidents this year and we need your help to arrest the trend,” Lake Mead Superintendent Mike Gauthier said.
Two people died in an Aug. 12 crash involving another boater who now faces a DUI charge. In addition, six deaths were reported over Father’s Day weekend, including three deaths in a multiple-car crash.