'It's such a strange thing to see': Photos show Lake Mead on the verge of becoming a 'dead pool'

·3 min read
Scenes around Lake Mead as persistent drought drives water levels to their lowest point in history.
A power boat is among the years of accumulated detritus that has been exposed as water levels in Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, have dropped to 30% of capacity after almost two decades of severe drought conditions in the American West. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The sun began to set but the temperature hovered around 106 degrees. I was there to document one of the latest objects to emerge from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, serving the needs of some 20 million people in the Desert Southwest.

In recent weeks, lots of things have resurfaced, including dead bodies, formerly sunken boats and trash.

“It’s a totem pole for the climate age,” said Sam Morris, as he photographed a battered power boat, its stern buried in the mud of the drying lake, its bow pointing sharply upward at the almost cloudless sky. “It’s such a strange thing to see.”

A white band of dried rock now surrounds the vast lake.

A white "bathtub ring" around Echo Bay is evidence of the declining water level in Lake Mead.
Kayakers taking their gear out of the water are dwarfed by a white bathtub ring around Echo Bay in Lake Mead. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

It’s called a “bathtub ring” and clearly shows how much water levels have dropped in the last two decades, amid the driest conditions of the last 1,200 years, according to scientists. I was surprised by how much lower the lake looked from a year ago when I was last here.

The situation is critical.

The lake’s surface is at about 1,045 feet above sea level. If the reservoir eventually hits dead pool, water would no longer pass through the dam, which would cut off supplies to Southern California, Arizona and Mexico.

Scenes around Lake Mead as persistent drought drives water levels to their lowest point in history.
Dead fish that someone propped up between the cracks of dried mud present a stark image of climate change at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

A hotter and drier environment caused by climate change accelerates aridification. Essentially, everything becomes thirstier — and the ecosystem becomes taxed even more, leaving less runoff from snow and rain flowing into rivers and streams. Climate change feeds itself.

I watched a wild mustang grazing in the distance, looking for sparse blades of grass pushing up from the stony ground. It’s hard to stand in the heat. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to think.

A wild mustang forages for grass around Lake Mead.
A wild mustang forages for grass amid the parched landscape around Lake Mead. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Sweat flows out of every pore.

It got dark and it felt like someone dimmed the lights in a sauna. The lake loses about six vertical feet of water every year to evaporation. From a ridge above the Lake Mead Marina, in the blue light of dusk, I saw long concrete boat ramps end short of the water’s edge.

It’s going to be another brutal summer.

Intake towers that feed Hoover Dam's power generators are almost fully exposed at Lake Mead
The intake towers that feed Hoover Dam's power generators are almost fully exposed as the Lake Mead water level continues to decline. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A boater navigates Lake Mead's Callville Bay
A boater navigates Lake Mead's Callville Bay. Lake beaches and boat launches have been closed due to lack of water. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The water level of Lake Mead is alarmingly low
Lake Mead is receding to alarmingly low levels because of drought and climate change. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters are dwarfed by a white "bathtub ring" around Lake Mead.
Boaters are dwarfed by a white "bathtub ring" around Lake Mead. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Lights from the Lake Mead Marina twinkle at dusk.
Lights from the Lake Mead Marina twinkle at dusk. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.