Although the drought is a scary nightmare for many throughout the Southwest, and the once mighty Lake Mead is no longer so mighty, a strange benefit of the receding waters is bringing tourists to the area in increasing numbers. Why? Because the lower water levels have revealed some curious surprises, including a ghost town and a B-29 bomber long-submerged below the Lake’s once roaring waters.
Lake Mead is a man-made lake that was created in the 1930s to hold the overflow from Hoover Dam. When the reservoir was created, it took over the small town of St. Thomas, Nevada. When the water levels are low, like they are now, the submerged town can be seen. Along the canyon walls of the lake is the famous “bathtub ring” showing the levels of the lake. Right now, most of the rings are visible. The water levels have fallen from 2,026 feet to 1,075 feet in just 17 years. Not all of that is due to the drought, though. Increased water usage has also dwindled the reserve.
Despite the drought, Lake Mead is still among the top tourist destinations — sixth out of 407 National Parks. And visits are up 47 percent since this time last year. Hikers have discovered the town of St. Thomas and numbers on that northernmost finger of the lake have inspired officials to install informational placards there.
Divers are also coming to the lake to explore a B-29 bomber that sank when a test went awry. “The ambient light makes this a more interesting dive,” says Joel Silverstein, owner of Scuba Training and Technology, which leads tours to the wreck. While Silverstein has seen an increase in clients, he still worries about the health of the lake. “The lower level of the lake is disturbing. That we’re able to go look at stuff now in shallower depths is the dark cloud’s silver lining.”
Years ago, national park officials couldn’t imagine water levels below 1,000 feet. Christie Vanover, a National Park spokesperson, said, “We originally discussed 1,000 feet and then dropped to 950. When we did that there was a moment of silence, like, ‘Could we ever reach that level?'”
Every one-foot drop in the water line equals a 30-foot addition to the beach line. Now beaches are certainly larger, but marinas and docks have to extend further into the water and in some cases have to be gathered up and moved completely. Officials have spent $36 million in building new launches over the last decade. No matter what, it seems that as long as Lake Mead holds water, the people will come. For just how long that will be, no one knows for sure.