BOULDER CITY, Nev. - Lake Mead has never pretended to be anything but a watersports playground for the masses. Recreational pursuits that would make visitors outlaws at most areas managed by the National Park Service get a warm reception at Lake Mead.
This summer, the lake hosted a
hydroplane boat race, a bass-fishing tournament and a bikini
contest. Even "personal watercraft" like jet skis, which some call
tools of the devil, are given unrestricted access to Lake Mead, the
29 million acre-foot body of water behind Hoover Dam, about 10
miles east of greater Las Vegas.
With an average
of 10 million visitors annually, this is the busiest national
recreation area in the country, centering around the nation's
largest manmade lake.
It also leads the national
park system in fatalities.
Thirty-six people have
died this year at America's oldest and most popular national
recreation area, an average of almost one fatality every week. Most
of them perished from a lethal combination of what park rangers
call "recklessness and cluelessness."
been 22 water-related fatalities on the 250 square-mile lake this
year, prompting the National Park Service to declare that drowning
has reached "virtual epidemic proportions' at Lake Mead.
"The fatality rate is not something we are
terribly proud of, and it is not acceptable within a unit of the
National Park Service," says Alan O'Neill, the park superintendent.
"We've got to rededicate ourselves to making sure people can come
here and not fear for their safety."
Coping with the
At most national parks, high-stress
events such as body recovery or multiple fatalities trigger a visit
from a "critical-incident response team." The group of professional
therapists helps employees cope with post-traumatic feelings. At
Lake Mead, the steady diet of boating accidents, suicides,
drownings, murder-victim dumpings, drug overdoses and exposure
deaths could keep an army of therapists busy around the
"It was getting to be routine because
there is just so much of it; how can you deal with it every day and
not get numb to it?" says O'Neill. "But this year, something
happened. In our hearts, we just said enough is enough."
So O'Neill did what may have been unthinkable
for a sunny shoreline so close to the party capital of Las Vegas:
He banned alcohol on a popular section of beachfront and closed
another beach to vehicles after 10 p.m.
is also developing a new Lake Management Plan that suggests even
more sweeping changes, such as prohibiting alcohol consumption by
boat pilots when a craft is under way, requiring wakeless operation
for watercraft passing within 100 feet of one another, and
prohibiting motors on boats operating in primitive sections of the
sprawling lake complex. Authorities are also considering mandatory
boater education and certification as a means to reduce
"Voluntary boating education is not
working," says Jim Holland, the park planner. "You have to look at
boating-safety education the same way you look at hunter-safety
education. That is, getting young people started the safe way
A new federal audit says Lake Mead's ranger
corps should have at least 33 additional officers and duty hours
expanded to include overnight shifts.
door to a 24-hour city, so it only follows that we get 24-hour
recreation activity," says O'Neill. "In peak season, some of our
boat ramps are as busy at 3:30 in the morning as they are at 3:30
in the afternoon, but we don't have enough staff to cover the park
around the clock.
"People have overwhelmingly
told us they want more enforcement activity on the lake," says
O'Neill. "That is not what you'd expect to hear from folks in the
West." One example: Sunbathers recently gave rangers a standing
ovation when they arrested a drug dealer on a Las Vegas Bay
Better policing of the masses is not the
only option, say staffers; reducing rowdiness and recklessness at
Lake Mead may be as simple as charging cars to enter the recreation
area. Lake Mead officials have asked the National Park Service for
funds to build a series of entrances to begin collecting admission,
something that was started at Utah's Lake Powell in 1997 with good
If funds are provided, Lake Mead
officials conservatively project annual revenues of $5 million -
money that will stay at the park to improve facilities and increase
But while Glen Canyon built rustic
"stick and brick" entrance stations, there are concerns at Lake
Mead about gangs and safety that require fee stations to be more
like armored bunkers. Plans call for building Lake Mead's entrance
stations with poured concrete walls and bulletproof
"It's unfortunate, but it's a reality
here," says O'Neill. "This has become an urbanized wilderness."
reports for the Salt Lake
You can contact
* Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 601
Nevada Highway, Boulder City, NV 89005