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Know the West

Lake Mead watch: As the Colorado dries up, will tourism?

What dropping water levels could mean for the region’s recreation economy.


Before Lake Mead was filled in 1936, there was little water to be had in the desert ecosystems of western Arizona and southern Nevada. But that changed after the Colorado River was impounded behind the Hoover Dam, creating the nation’s largest reservoir. By the 1950s, when Bob Gripentog, 64, was growing up on the shores of Lake Mead, water seemed abundant. In less than 50 years, Las Vegas grew from 40,000 people to 2 million — many of whom came to play on the reservoir, where Gripentog’s family ran a marina. Now the third generation owner of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor, Gripentog has watched the reservoir’s level rise and fall over the years. But no regional dryspell has lasted as long as the current one, now in its 16th year. 

"The alkali line makes it look very dramatic," he says, referring to Lake Mead's signature white "bathtub" ring that shows how much the water level has fallen. People like to take pictures, he says, before adding, "It's definitely an issue for all of us in the Southwest right now."

The Bureau of Reclamation reported June 30 that water levels have fallen to 1074.9 feet, 154 feet below capacity and 141 feet below its last peak in 1998. 

Most public fears about Lake Mead's decline center on the potential cutbacks in water deliveries — how much water is being released from the reservoir. But for Gripentog and other nearby business owners, there’s another set of concerns: As Mead dries up, so do the tourists they depend on.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the 6th most visited National Park unit in the country, attracting almost 7 million visitors each year and $260 million in local spending — and making Lake Mead the most valuable water recreation area in the entire Colorado River Basin, thanks to the crowds that come from Las Vegas. More than 3,000 jobs and 125 small businesses depend on that economy.

The old site of the Lake Mead Marina, a popular boat launch since the 1940s. Falling water levels in the reservoir forced the marina to relocate in 2008.

According to a recent report by graduate students at the the University of California, Santa Barbara and University of Colorado Boulder, in conjunction with the Western Water Policy Program at University of Colorado Boulder, if water levels continue to fall, visitors to Lake Mead could drop by half and at 1,000 feet, the total economic loss could reach $280 million. Recreational visitors to the reservoir have been decreasing since 1996, a trend that matches declining water levels — though the study found that other factors, such as the economy and negative media coverage, could be adding to more recent declines.

For local businesses like Gripentog’s, receding waters also mean additional costs. In recent years, Gripentog has had to pay to move his boat ramps several times, since every 2-foot drop in the reservoir’s elevation exposes an extra 60 feet of shoreline. Already, the National Park Service has invested $36 million to improve access and has budgeted an additional $5 million for anticipated future adaptations. A drop below 1,060 feet would rack up even more costs to the agency.  

Businesses around Lake Mead aren’t alone in worrying about the drought.  Healthy levels on the river itself, not just the reservoirs, are a major economic driver in communities throughout the Colorado River Basin. A report commissioned by Protect the Flows, a coalition of businesses that rely on rivers, and published in January by Arizona State University, found that the Colorado River generates a $1.4 trillion economy and 16 million jobs.

Those numbers don’t come as a surprise to Julie Pastrick, the president and CEO of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce. The town lies 70 miles from the Grand Canyon, and 15 rafting companies pump $37.5 million into the local economy, she says. Those outfitters pay $2.4 million in fees to the National Park Service and a single food vendor will often receive $10,000 per month from those companies alone.

The most recent federal government shutdown in 2013 cost rafting companies $945,000, a “stark reminder,” she says, of how important the Colorado River and its recreation opportunities are for Flagstaff’s economy. 

At least this year, though, Pastrick and Gripentog can breath a sigh of relief: Heavy rains in May across much of the Southwest have boosted water levels in Lake Powell by 20 feet, and other upper basin reservoirs such as Blue Mesa, Navajo and Flaming Gorge are at or close to full. That means the Bureau of Reclamation can release more water into Lake Mead to keep it above the level that triggers water curtailments.

“Unfortunately all the doom and gloom makes people think there’s no water,” Gripentog says. “Just when we need ‘em most, they’re staying away.”

Meanwhile, there’s still 500 feet of water in the reservoir and the Las Vegas Boat Harbor is open for business.

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at High Country News.