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Planning a lake vacation? Here's how record-low water levels could threaten your trip

July 15 2022
9 min read
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Across the southwestern U.S. and throughout California, record-low water levels in lakes and reservoirs are causing crisis conditions not only for water supplies and power generation, but also for travelers and boating enthusiasts.

Vacationers planning boating trips to popular destinations like Lake Mead, Lake Powell and smaller lakes across the region are facing challenges and wondering if their summer travel plans should be changed or canceled.

Marinas and boat ramps at affected lakes and reservoirs are closing due to low water levels, boat rentals are becoming unavailable and the overall visitor experience is being degraded.

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Boaters face increased navigation hazards. Long swaths of recently exposed land make it difficult to dock and reach campsites, and also take away from the scenic views people traveled to see.

However, these lakes are still open to visitors. With the right planning and a little flexibility, you can still enjoy a boating trip this summer, be it on a houseboat, sailboat or a wakeboard-towing power boat.

Here's what travelers need to know about the latest water situation out West, and what to think about when planning a potential lake or boating vacation.

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Water levels dropping across the West

A marina on Lake Mead. (Photo by WSfurlan/Getty Images)

Low water levels are affecting some of the West's most popular water recreation areas, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell as well as countless smaller lakes and waterways across Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.

Lake Mead's low water levels

The Lake Mead National Recreation Area recently issued this notice for all potential visitors:

"Declining water levels due to climate change and 20 years of ongoing drought have reshaped the park’s shorelines. As Lake Mead continues to recede, extending launch ramps becomes more difficult and more expensive. Lake Mead National Recreation Area encourages visitors to plan ahead and stay informed by checking current conditions and alerts."

The Lake Mead National Recreation Area, part of the National Park Service, attracted more than 7.6 million visitors last year. It was one of the most visited areas in the National Park System -- bringing in as many annual visitors as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined.

The 247-square-mile reservoir on the border of Nevada and Arizona was created as part of the Hoover Dam hydroelectric project in the 1930s. At full capacity, the reservoir holds enough water to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania a foot deep.

Lake Mead is far from full capacity, though, almost daily reaching lows in the water level not seen since the reservoir was first filled more than 80 years ago.

With the lake elevation level more than 200 feet below high-water marks (but still with depths exceeding 300 feet), the difference is apparent to visitors. Bathtub ring-like stains on lakeside rock faces reflect the dramatic decline of the lake water.

Visitors must also traverse long swaths of desert gravel to reach floating boat marinas that move farther into the lake each year. Many fixed boat ramps are closing because the structures are no longer able to reach the water.

It's not just unsightly rings and gravel landscapes that are revealed with Lake Mead's decline. Long-forgotten shipwrecks, plane wrecks and a World War II landing craft have emerged from the shrinking waters.

A bullet-riddled body in a barrel was even discovered on a recently exposed Lake Mead shoreline. Investigators theorize it was the victim of a Vegas mob hit from the 1970s when the lake was thought to be a favorite dumping ground for hitmen.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is still open for boaters. However, its website currently shows boat ramp closures at five different bays and harbors around the lake. Most floating marina areas remain open, though.

The park says it's spending about $2 million per year to construct launch ramp extensions but is still unable to keep up with the lake's rapid decline. As a stop-gap solution, the park is opening "primitive launching" areas where shallow-draft boats can be lowered into the lake by four-wheel-drive vehicles on graded dirt or gravel pathways.

Other affected Western lake areas

Lake Mead isn't alone in facing issues due to drought and water shortage. The popular boating destination of Lake Powell along the Arizona-Utah border, with 2.5 million annual visitors, is currently at 26% of its lake capacity, threatening vacation plans (not to mention future power generation).

Multiple boat launch ramps, marinas and various services are closed due to low lake levels, according to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area alerts.

Lakes and reservoirs across California are affected by low water levels as well. Lake Berryessa, a popular boating spot in Napa County, has faced boat ramp closures and marina issues due to low water levels, as has Northern California's Lake Oroville, which peaked at 50% of capacity in early summer.

Lake Shasta, California's largest reservoir and "the houseboating capital of America," has closed entire sections of the lake to boating traffic due to exposed rocks and earth creating navigation hazards.

Related: 10 places threatened by climate change you should visit now

How low water levels might affect your trip

Rocks exposed by low water levels at Lake Mead. (Photo by Joe Klementovich/Getty Images)

Low water levels at many lakes in the Western U.S. are creating problems for boaters hoping for a cool summer holiday. Boat ramps and docks are closed due to lack of water access and floating marinas are shifting to reach deeper waters, which affects the boat rental market. Additionally, out on the water, newly exposed hazards create navigation problems.

"If you are planning a trip to one of the Western U.S. lakes that are experiencing low water levels, but still want to enjoy your watercraft, there are a few things to keep in mind," said Gillian Luce, director of consumer marketing for the Boatline marketplace.

"A vacation can be quickly ruined by a boat damaged on one of the new pieces of debris emerging with the low water levels every day. Be sure to look at the current regulations for the lake you are visiting. Take things slowly, stay vigilant while out on the water, use your depth finder and always be sure your boat is equipped with the proper safety gear."

Visitors planning to bring watercraft to any affected lake in the region should reach out to the local marinas or park authority to make sure you'll be able to actually get your boat in the water. You don't want to arrive after a long road trip only to find your boat trailer can't reach the water, or your boat's draft can't clear harbor hazards.

This may also be the summer when boating and lake enthusiasts may want to purchase travel insurance to protect their vacation investment, particularly if splurging on a big deposit or advance payment on a boat rental. Double-check what your credit card's travel insurance will cover, especially if you're renting a boat that might get damaged in newly hazardous conditions.

Related: 3 timely tips for finding and using travel insurance this summer

Alternate boating destinations

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. (Photo by J.Castro/Getty Images)

Flexible travelers can still enjoy a good boating vacation this summer, even at affected lakes. Planning ahead and knowing the latest closures can help find open access areas, so you can still get out on the water.

Lake Mead remains busy despite all the ramp closures, with houseboat and other boat rentals still open for the season.

Boating enthusiasts can also look into planning a trip to a lake that isn't suffering from such extreme drops in the water level. If you've already planned your boating vacation in the southwest, you may not be able to change your plans. However, there are alternate boating (and non-boating) destinations that may be a good substitute.

Looking for an alternative to Lake Mead in northern Arizona or Lake Powell in southern Utah? Check out nearby non-boating locations like national parks. Arches, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona are a few to consider. If you've already booked your flight or planned your road trip to that area, the parks are well worth a detour if the lakes disappoint.

Even in California and the southwest, some lakes with different water flows and conditions are reporting water levels near normal.

Lake Havasu, on the western border of Arizona, reports its reservoir's water levels are "maintaining a constant level within a few feet of variance," according to tourism representative Jeff Blumenfeld. The lake is fully open for boating and all recreational activities.

Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, is currently at average levels, within 3 feet of the lake's rim, according to the California Department of Water Resources. This allows watercraft full access to the lake, though some ramp closures may occur if conditions change.

This might be the summer for boaters to explore farther-flung lake destinations in the Pacific Northwest, Midwestern favorites like Wisconsin Dells and Lake Geneva (and even a Great Lakes cruise) or boating on lakes in the eastern U.S. around New York's Finger Lakes.

Related: 20 beach destinations to visit this summer

Bottom line

Low water levels at lakes and reservoirs in the southwest are affecting boaters' vacation plans.

If you're scheduling a trip to an at-risk destination like Lake Mead or Lake Powell, check ahead on the latest conditions at the marinas and boat rental companies to avoid unpleasant surprises when you get there. Once you're out on the water, be aware of low water levels exposing potential navigation hazards.

If you have the flexibility, this might be the year to skip the Arizona or California boating trip and try out a new destination in another part of the country.

Featured photo by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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