Lake Mead was created in 1935, upon completion of Hoover Dam, one of the country’s engineering wonders. Since 1937, the National Park Service has been the agency administering the recreation aspects of Lake Mead and has managed the increasing popularity of this enormous lake and facilities just outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
The lake measures 110 miles long with a surface area of 274 square miles, and has more than 500 miles of shoreline. Lake Mead is a favorite spot for water sports enthusiasts from nearby California, Utah, Arizona and of course Nevada.
Visitors to Lake Mead can enjoy a variety of water recreation activities in a rugged and picturesque setting. Lake Mead offers some of the country’s best sport fishing, boating and waterskiing, along with kayaking and canoeing. Skiers can enjoy runs through canyons on water as smooth as glass, while scuba divers can explore the numerous underwater caves and canyons.
Lake Mead is the western home of the Striped Bass, Bluegill, Largemouth Bass, Crappie and Channel Catfish. Fishing for stripers and largemouth bass is good throughout Lake Mead with crappie, blue gill, green sunfish, and catfish being more prevalent in the upper Overton Arm of the lake. The desert climate offers fishing throughout the year with winter Crappie fishing excellent during the winter months.
The lake is divided into several bodies. The large body closest to the Hoover Dam is Boulder Basin. The narrow channel, which was once known as Boulder Canyon and the original planned site for the dam is now known as The Narrows, connects Boulder Basin to Virgin Basin to the east. The Virgin River and Muddy River empty into Overton Arm, which is connected to the northern part of the Virgin Basin. The next basin to the east is Temple Basin, and following that is Gregg Basin.
Jagged mountain ranges surround the lake, offering somewhat of a startling but beautiful backdrop, especially at sunset. There are two mountain ranges within view of the Boulder Basin, the River Mountains, oriented North-west to South-east and the Muddy Mountains, oriented West to North-east.
Boaters need to be careful when Lake Mead’s water elevation drops. Unmarked reefs are exposed or are just below the surface of the water. Boating at night or at faster speeds can be dangerous. Special care also needs to be taken on the launch ramps. They have been underwater for years and have deteriorated.
Why is the water going down?
Lake Mead stores Colorado River water for delivery to farms, homes and businesses in southern Nevada, Arizona, southern California and northern Mexico. About 96 percent of the water in Lake Mead is from melted snow that fell in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Each year, Lake Mead receives a minimum amount of Colorado River water from these states, known as the “Upper Basin” states. And each year, a specific amount of water is released from Lake Mead to users in Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico. In an “average” year, the amount of water flowing out of Lake Mead exceeds the amount of water flowing into Lake Mead.
In some years, Lake Mead receives much more than the minimum amount of water from the Upper Basin, but the amount of water released from Lake Mead does not vary much from year to year. The water level in Lake Mead is lower than it has been in over 40 years. The water is going down because the Colorado River runoff over the last decade starting in 1998 has been far below normal.
A Lake Mead ramp at low water
In 2000, for example, the runoff was only 56 percent of normal. The runoff has continued to be well below normal. Because of this decreased runoff, Lake Mead has received only slightly more than the minimum required amount of water from the Upper Basin. But the amount of water going out from Lake Mead has remained at normal levels. So, there has been more water going out of Lake Mead over the past decade starting in 1998 than there has been coming into the lake. This causes the elevation to drop a little more each year.
The variation in water flowing into Lake Mead and the water flowing out of Lake Mead causes the lake’s water level or “elevation” to fluctuate yearly and over multi-year periods, and has done so throughout the reservoir’s 66-year history. This is normal – it is how Lake Mead was designed to work.
Lake Mead’s bathtub ring
Water is released from Lake Mead only to meet downstream municipal and agricultural demands. Consequently, power demands in California, Arizona and Nevada do not impact its elevation.
Lake Mead is typically at its highest yearly elevation in the late fall and early spring months. The lake begins to drop in elevation in the late spring and early summer when the desert heats up and causes a higher demand of agricultural and municipal water needed in the Las Vegas Valley, in Arizona and California, and in Mexico. Some years, the drop is greater than others, depending on how much difference there is between inflow and outflow.
Low water at Boulder Beach
If there are several consecutive years where outflow exceeds inflow, Lake Mead begins each year with lower water levels, and the elevation continues to drop until a “wet year” occurs in the Colorado River. Then, Lake Mead typically receives more water than it releases, and the lake again returns to higher elevations.
This pattern – where the lake periodically fills to capacity then experiences a period of declining levels, only to fill up again – is projected to continue into the future. But no one can predict the weather, so it is not possible to predict when the high and low periods will occur.
Houseboating Article by Mark Sanders
“For the uninitiated, “Arizona” might conjure mental images of dust-clouded highways and barren, cactus-laden mountains. The idea of water, much less lakes and rivers, doesn’t fit in with a lot of folks’ mindsets about the Southwest. The very mention of watersports in the Grand Canyon State sounds, well, kind of weird.
Perhaps that’s why Arizona’s houseboating scene is so robust it’s such an anomaly. Lake Powell alone is 186 miles long and has nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. At the other end of the size spectrum is Lake Havasu; at 45 miles in length, it has a shore that stretches about 450 miles.
Houseboating has become so popular that the market is, excuse the pun, flooded with outfitters who are only a mouseclick (or phone call) away from setting visitors up with a 40-footer, a 50-footer and many other types of “-footers” to use on multi-night camping excursions. On Arizona’s main lakes Lake Powell, Lake Mead, Lake Havasu and Lake Mojave houseboating is a year-round pastime, a kind of vacation that is as suited to loungers as it is to adventurers. These lakes border Utah, Nevada and California, surrounding Arizona like jewels in a necklace, all sharing a common trait: the Colorado River. The dammed-up waterway makes cities possible in this arid, yet spectacular, landscape. The artificial lakes also make improbable desert activities like houseboating possible.
A few tips on houseboating:
Just about anyone can learn to operate one. “We tell people that if you can drive a car, you can drive a houseboat,” says Robert Boulds, of outfitter Houseboating.org, which serves Lakes Mohave, Powell and Mead. At virtually all houseboating outfitters, prospective houseboat captains receive training before launching.
It’s best to rent a houseboat for a number of days, to get the full experience of living aboard. Houseboating.org rents houseboats for three- to seven-day excursions, as do many other businesses.
Summer is the most popular time of year for houseboating, so if you’re interested, make reservations well in advance. But keep this in mind, says Boulds: “The best time of year, I’d say, are the fall months. It’s a little cooler, it’s a little less crowded… and you get a better price.”
Don’t overpack. Amenities between different outfitters range greatly, but houseboats typically offer the same things you’ll find in a hotel suite: bedrooms, a small kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, once aboard, you can’t make a run to the supermarket, so bring groceries with you.
Here’s how a typical trip might go. Begin in the morning on, say, Lake Powell. Cruise out past the daytrippers and the most popular areas, and ease down a side canyon that strikes your interest. Monumental red sandstone cliffs rise a few stories around you, offering some shade from the sun which, in the high desert country, seems simply brighter than elsewhere. Spend the afternoon swimming, hiking through Glen Canyon Recreation Area’s myriad canyons, or fishing for largemouth or striped bass. Or don’t do anything at all just hang out on the boat, enjoying the singular vibe that goes with chilling out on your own floating castle. Spend the evening on the boat, or, for a change of pace, set up camp near the waterfront and take in a spectacular, star-filled sky.
Lakes Mead and Mojave offer far different views than Lake Powell, yet they’re no less remarkable. Much of Lake Mojave is squeezed between canyon walls. The lake itself is 67 miles long, but spreads only four miles at its widest point. The lakes’ proximity to the northwest Arizona mountains is a highlight, as is their remoteness. Despite Lake Mead’s gargantuan size (the largest of its kind in the U.S.), few roads lead to the waterfront. While that’s unfortunate for car-bound sightseers, it’s a plus for houseboaters wanting to get away from it all.
Lake Havasu has its own distinctions as well. For starters, as any local (or for that matter, any tourist brochure) will tell you, the London Bridge is here. (Come on, you know the tune.) Lake Havasu City, a preplanned town founded in 1963, leads a double life of sorts: it’s comprised of both families and retirees, though on weekends, many young college students appear, lending a Spring Break atmosphere to the lake. Houseboating is popular here, too. Rent from one of the local outfitters, and you can either get an up-close look at this desert oasis (cruising under the London Bridge, naturally), or you can head downstream to get away from town and into the dramatic scenery of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge.”