Declining Lake Mead forces marinas to relocate to stay afloat

Behind the counter of the Temple Bar marina store in Lake Mead is a photo from the 1980s, revealing that the building was once waterfront property.

“They told me you could throw a rock from your hotel room and hit the water,” said Nathan Newingham, director of operations at the marina.

Now the building sits on a hill so far from the shore that a van shuttles between the marina and the store when they dock their boats.

“Did you see this parking lot on the way? It wasn’t a parking lot three months ago,” Newingham says. He points to sandy islands, explaining that they were underwater until only a few months ago.

In recent decades, Lake Mead’s water levels have steadily declined as much of the western United States faces overuse of the Colorado River and a decades-long “mega-drought.” And in recent years, these declines have been particularly precipitous as water managers have made unprecedented decisions to try to manage the water crisis facing the Colorado River Basin.

Since 1998, the lake has dropped more than 170 feet. In 2022 alone, Lake Mead’s elevation has already dropped 26 feet, from 1,067 feet in January to 1,041 feet in July.

And Bureau of Reclamation projections indicate the decline will continue. By September 2023, Lake Mead’s elevation could be less than 1,010 feet, or 31 feet lower than it is now.

Move a marina

These declines have serious implications for marina owners, who have had to push their marinas further into the lake to keep their businesses afloat.

Newingham says that since he started working at the marina in mid-January this year, they have had to move the marina 1,200 feet – about 100 feet at a time – to keep up with the rapid decline of Lake Mead.

“Every time you leave [further] outside it’s a bit more difficult,” says Newingham.

Moving a marina is no small feat, says Kim Roundtree, general manager of Callville Bay Marina. Callville Bay is across the Boulder Canyon from Temple Bar, but the two marinas are sister properties.

Each time workers move the Callville Bay marina, 170 anchors weighing 12,000 pounds each have to be moved with them. And with each move, workers also have to extend the electrical, water, sewer and fuel lines that deliver utilities to the marina. Roundtree says it takes a team of about 20 people to perform each move.

And since January, Roundtree says these movements have been occurring almost weekly in Callville Bay in 60-foot increments. At this point, workers are constantly moving or preparing to move the marina.

“It was just go, go, go, go,” she said. “We’ve put a lot of our normal business on hold just so we can get everyone on deck and get this marina out.”

She estimates that the marina has had to move over 1,000 feet in the past year and she expects it to continue moving in the months to come.

“We’re connected and committed to making this work,” says Roundtree. “So that we can continue to operate our marina.”

“We are always open”

At one time, the National Park Service maintained boat ramps at six locations around the lake. But currently, only the Hemenway Harbor boat launch remains open and the park department has worked diligently to continue to extend this ramp to maintain boating access.

The park service estimates that it costs between $2 million and $3 million to maintain boating access to Lake Mead for every 4-foot decrease in lake elevation. Since 2010, the park has spent over $40 million to ensure continued access.

At Callville Bay, the original boat launch has been out of service for years; the last time Roundtree remembers using it was in 2011.

A second “low water” boat launch opened in 2010 at Callville Bay, but closed on March 24 when the water level fell below 1,062 feet. With permission from the park service, Roundtree has turned part of the boat ramp into a parking lot.

The Temple Bar boat launch has been closed since July last year when the water level reached 1,067ft.

A Lake Mead spokesperson said in an email that recreation area staff continue to speak with community members and elected officials about the rapidly declining water line and water issues. launch ramp accessibility.

The park service has released a low-water plan to potentially expand boat launches and marina operations to places like Callville Bay and Temple Bar at 950ft, which could cost up to $32 million dollars and may require moving these structures to more suitable locations on the lake.

Meanwhile, Newingham and Roundtree agree boat launch closures at Callville Bay and Temple Bar have deterred many people from visiting.

Roundtree says boat rentals, general store and food and beverage suffered the biggest revenue losses because casual weekend boaters stopped visiting in the numbers they used to.

“Since [the main boat launch] was shut down, people thought, ‘Well, everything’s shut down,'” Newingham says.

But Roundtree assures that there are still plenty of opportunities to recreate on the lake. “Does it look like it did 20 years ago? No. But is there still plenty of water for boating? Absolutely.”

At its maximum capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume. Even now, at less than 27% of maximum capacity, once people leave the shallow inlets along the shore, there are many places where the water is still several hundred feet deep.

“We just need people to know we’re still open,” laughs Newingham. Temple Bar Marina will celebrate its 75th anniversary in August. He says that even though the boat launch is closed, the marina has plenty of rental boats available, and he encourages kayakers and others wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of city life to visit.

“The sunrises are amazing,” he says. “He comes just above the Temple.”

keep pushing

As water managers consider additional cuts to the Colorado River, marina owners will continue to move at the mercy of lower Lake Mead water levels. “I’m not throwing in the towel,” says Roundtree.

In the coming months, Callville Bay is predicting a “long move” of two to three hundred feet at a time.

And Newingham says at Temple Bar he expects to have to move the marina another six to eight hundred feet into the lake by the end of 2023.

Both marinas hope that by moving far enough into the lake, they will reach a deeper and more stable water point, where they can continue to operate even if the lake level continues to drop.

“Once we get through this tough part, we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Newingham said. “Right now it’s just about trying to get through 2023.”

Newingham says there has been talk of possibly making Temple Bar Marina self-sufficient so that it is no longer dependent on utility lines running from land. He even says they considered building new buildings closer to the current shoreline in anticipation that Lake Mead may never fill again.

And in Callville Bay, Roundtree says that while the past few years have been challenging, none of Lake Mead’s marinas are giving up.

“I aim to keep going,” Roundtree says. “Unless the park service stops me, I continue.”

Colton Poore is a 2022 Mass Media Journalist through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @coltonlpoore.

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