LAS VEGAS — As Chad Taylor looked toward the Callville Bay Marina Lounge from a houseboat on Lake Mead, he reflected on a much different time.
In the mid-1990s, the building was right at the water’s edge. Today, it’s nearly a quarter-mile (half-kilometer) from the shoreline.
Taylor, whose father was then general manager of the marina, works as marketing director for Lake Mead Mohave Adventures, a boat rental and recreation company that sets customers up for getaways on Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.
Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River, is at its lowest water level since Hoover Dam was completed and the reservoir filled in the 1930s.
The water level now is 1,067 feet (325.2 meters) above sea level, about 35% of capacity, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. A pronounced “bathtub ring” of mineral deposits shows the decrease since the lake level peaked at 1,225 feet (373.4 meters) in 1983.
At Callville Bay, the receding water recently revealed a small boat that once sank below the surface of the lake and has now reemerged.
“Who knows what history is in this boat,” Taylor said. “With the water levels going down, there’s new things and places to explore.”
After inspecting the boat, Taylor climbed onto a dock, which was being taken apart, piece by piece like a Lego set, so it can be moved farther into the lake. It’s a continuous process for a crew of several dock workers, some of whom were contracted by Lake Mead Mohave Adventures for the sole purpose of playing dock dominoes.
Part of the process involves lifting dock anchors with a crane on a boat. The anchors weigh thousands of pounds.
“Every one of the screws in these pieces of dock were put in by hand,” Taylor said. “I used to do that as a kid, all day, every day for months.”
Moving docks can get expensive for the company, but sales have increased since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, Taylor said.
“When COVID hit, people decided they wanted to get outside more. Groups started coming and they haven’t really stopped coming,” he said. “Our summer season last year, we ran that all the way into November because of demand.”
This year has been different because many families returned their children to traditional in-person schools, Taylor said. That has meant less time for outdoor adventures.
“From a business standpoint, we’re doing fantastic,” Taylor said. “We’re just having to work tirelessly to ensure access on a daily basis. What the water levels are doing, that’s a daily thought for us. We’ll work for the next six or eight months, a full-time crew of people, to move this dock.”
Lake Mead Mohave Adventures is not the only business that has had to adjust to lower water levels at Lake Mead and on the Colorado River.
In Laughlin, Bre Chiodini, owner of Laughlin River Tours and another business that rents out personal watercraft, said she’s had to reduce some operations because of river levels, which are controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation.
“If the water stops flowing, everything stops moving down here,” Chiodini said. “We’re completely dependent on the Colorado River. Most of our businesses, hotels, resorts, casinos, other businesses, they hinge on the river. It’s scary when you move, like we are now, from drought contingency plans to drought restriction plans.”
Chiodini runs her businesses with her husband, Trevor Chiodini. They’re keeping an eye on river levels, which can change daily, but are also investing in their businesses.
They recently paid more than $2 million for a new tour boat to replace their 112-passenger dinner cruise craft named Celebration. But their success depends on a thriving Colorado.
“It could get to the point where we can’t run our businesses,” Bre Chiodini said. “It’s scary to think about the future of the river. We’re supposed to take delivery of our new boat next year.”
Next year, the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce water deliveries to Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. That’s largely because a good chunk of the Western U.S. is in a 20-plus-year drought.
The topic of who gets water and how much is both heated and complicated, and that’s not expected to change anytime soon.
The Colorado River Basin, an area covering close to 250,000 square miles (647,500 square kilometers), provides drinking water and irrigation for millions of people in seven Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
According to bureau figures, the farmed acres fed by the Colorado’s waters are responsible for about 60% of the nation’s supply of vegetables and about 25% of the country’s fresh fruit and nut crops.
But the restrictions enacted in an effort to sustain the river will clamp down on how much water can be used.
“The reduced deliveries next year are expected to add about 3 feet of water to Lake Mead,” said Patti Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation. “The snowpack in the Rocky Mountains serves as the primary source, 90% or more, of water for the Colorado River. Every drop of rain we get is great, but that does not make a big difference.”
With the unpredictable nature of how the continued effects of climate change will affect the Colorado River’s water sources, it’s a waiting game to see if the bureau enacts more restrictions.
“We’re now in our 22nd year of drought, and we don’t know when that’s going to end,” Aaron said. “Certainly, we hope that comes to an end. We hope to have a wetter period soon.”
At Desert Adventures, a Boulder City-based company that offers outdoor recreation packages like kayak tours on Lake Mead, Dominique Ianni said business had been steady, although some out-of-town groups have canceled in recent months because of worries about COVID-19.
“We’ve gotten a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be on the water,” Ianni said. “At times during the pandemic, it’s been very busy. Business has been up and down. The water level on the lake has been very noticeable, though. It’s very noticeable from even just a few months ago.”
Back at Callville Bay, Taylor, a self-described optimist, said he believes Mother Nature would allow Lake Mead to refill at some point.
If the lake keeps receding, though, Taylor said, Lake Mead Mohave Adventures will simply keep moving those pieces of dock.
“There are people making plans now at many different levels,” Taylor said. “Everybody is on the case now. We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring at this point. If you go out to the middle of that lake, there’s still a lot of water out there. We’re renting boats every day. As fast as they come back, they go right back out.”