LAS VEGAS - They appeared to be just a couple of special-education teachers, freed up by Flag Day, out for a morning of bass fishing on Lake Mead.
Matt Blanchard and Shawn Rosen had settled into their 18-foot motorboat, put beers on ice and waited their turn at the last functioning boat launch on this rapidly disappearing body of water. It wasn’t until the old Bayliner was chugging away that Rosen mentioned an ulterior motive for their mid-June excursion.
“We’re hoping today’s trip, besides finding fish, we come across some barrels,” Rosen said. “Everybody’s trying to find the barrels.”
As the nation’s largest reservoir has plummeted to about a quarter of its former size, barrels have taken on a grisly new significance. But the human remains discovered in a rusted-out barrel last month — suspected of being a decades-old mob execution — are not the only artifacts and oddities that have turned up in the mud. There have also been handguns, baby strollers, tackle boxes, vintage Coors cans, Prada sunglasses, exploded ordnance, real human jaw bones, fake human skeletons, ancient arrowheads, concrete mooring blocks, dozens of sunken boats and untold amounts of scattered trash.
The declining water levels have become a source of morbid fascination for visitors and longtime residents alike. In a place where party barges and speedboats once frolicked, Americans now wander the heat-ravaged West, searching for wreckage. Online groups have sprung up dedicated to documenting the dramatic disappearance of a lake that supplies electricity to 350,000 homes as well as irrigation and drinking water to some 25 million people across the Southwest.
Rosen and Blanchard were not looking for bodies in their barrels. The Las Vegas Boat Harbor is what Rosen - a 31-year-old Army National Guard member in addition to his teaching duties - calls a “PNN,” or private news network. “Everybody just talks s---,” he said. That’s where he heard the legend about Bugsy Siegel, a mobster who helped develop the Vegas strip, and how he supposedly stored his ill-gotten gains in barrels tossed to the bottom of Lake Mead.
“We’re expecting jewelry,” Rosen said. “Where there’s bodies, there’s treasure.”
The fact that Lake Mead sits on federal ground, within the nation’s first recreation area, has somewhat discouraged a full-fledged treasure hunt. It is illegal to scan the shores with metal detectors or fish for submerged wreckage with large magnets - although authorities catch people doing both from time to time.
“This is history being made right now,” said Dean Weigel, a.k.a. “Dean of Machines” on his YouTube channel about car repair, who had driven nearly two hours from his job at the Nevada National Security Site to examine formerly sunken boats now displayed like post-apocalyptic figurines in a desert sculpture garden.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said, marveling at a speedboat standing bolt upright in a desiccated basin. “We’re supposed to be, what, 50-foot underwater right here?”
‘It is plummeting’
There are many ways to measure the decline of Lake Mead - a body of water created in the 1930s when the Hoover Dam harnessed the Colorado River - and all of them are grim. The “bathtub ring,” the bleached-out portion of the Mojave Desert hillside that is a constant reminder of what the lake once was, now reaches about 180 feet high.
Alongside the Hemenway Harbor Launch Ramp, the National Park Service has put up signs that indicate where the water stood at various years. It takes just 24 paces to walk downhill between the sign for the 2018 water level and the sign for 2021. But to get to where the water stands now - just a year later - takes 250 more steps.
“It is dumping. It is plummeting,” said a local official who works at the lake and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s not slowly going out like the drought was for the last 20 years. In the last year, it’s pouring out.”
The creation of Lake Mead spawned boating and recreational playground that’s now a shell of itself. Two decades ago, some 1,200 boats would hit the lake from 10 ramps each day; now 50 to 60 boats launch from one ramp on a good day, according to the Park Service. And the water’s retreat makes it nearly impossible for the agency, and for the remaining marinas, to maintain their facilities.
On a recent day, Miguel Arroyo, 56, was digging a trench of about 400 feet in the freshly exposed shoreline mud to extend the utility pipes to the Las Vegas Boat Harbor. It’s a job he has become familiar with. “Whenever they need to do this, we come,” he said.
All up and down the sloping shoreline at Boulder Beach are parallel berms of dirt. These are where the Park Service has built parking areas that they’ve had to repeatedly move closer to the ever-retreating water, along with the rows of portable toilets and dumpsters. Just this year, the lake has lost about 20 vertical feet. One vertical foot can translate into about 20 feet of lost shoreline, depending on the slope of the beach.
“In some areas, that’s 400 additional feet of shoreline,” said Justin Pattison, deputy superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on a recent tour of area. “We can’t keep up with construction.”
“It’s dropping so much faster than anybody expected,” he said.
The official lake level measurements are kept by the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates the Hoover Dam. As of Monday, the surface of Lake Mead stood at 1043.45 feet above sea level, or 28% capacity, a record low. Every two weeks, a dam employee enters one of the four concrete intake towers and lowers a plumb line down to the water level to take an exact measurement.
When Patti Aaron moved to the Las Vegas area in 1999, those intake towers were almost fully submerged. Now these giant cylinders rise like monoliths out of the water.
“It’s sobering,” said Aaron, who is retiring this month as a spokeswoman at the dam. “We hit a new low every day.”
The Southwest is now in its 23rd year of drought, a drying out worsened by humans burning fossil fuels. These regional climate change impacts - warmer, drier, less snowpack in the mountains - are expected to persist, even as thirsty populations continue to grow. This year, officials held more water upstream to protect power generation at Lake Powell, another Colorado River reservoir, further depleted Lake Mead.
The dropping water level has already cut the Hoover Dam’s power generation by about 13%, as a smaller lake means less pressure on the turbines and less efficient generation. Federal officials are increasingly worried about the ability of Mead and Powell to continue to provide hydropower in the future.
“The Colorado River Basin faces greater risks than any other time in our modern history,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, said during a speech this month.
Her remarks echoed concerns by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who told a Senate hearing this month that authorities need to make major cuts in water distribution from Mead and Powell next year, on the order of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. The states of California, Arizona and Nevada used a combined total of about 7 million acre-feet from the Colorado River last year.
That could mean less water for agriculture in farming regions in California and Arizona, which produce about a quarter of the country’s fruits and vegetables.
It also means more unusual discoveries will probably emerge from the Lake Mead mud.
Not normal mud
The dozens of dead carp, and the vultures circling over them, were what stunned Mark and Luanne Realy when they showed up in early May at their former boat launch at Boulder Harbor.
The lake had been the scene of pleasant memories since the couple moved to the area in 2006, from boat trips to hikes to photographing lightning storms and bald eagles. Now it felt like an environmental horror show.
“Had they made a movie and put it on the sci-fi channel, you wouldn’t of believed it,” said Mark Realy, a telecom technician. “But we’re living it.”
After the visit, Luanne Realy, a job coach, created a Facebook group called Lake Mead Drying Up and began posting pictures and news stories about the problem. On May 5, after two sets of human remains had been found in the mud, she wrote: “It might not be safe to go to Lake Mead.”
The first body, found May 1, was stuffed in a barrel, lying in the newly exposed mud next to the Hemenway boat launch. The container had had corroded enough that a visitor could look inside, according to the Park Service. Police estimated the victim had been shot in the mid-1970s or early 1980s, based on the person’s Kmart shoes. The FBI is now involved, and a group of local philanthropists have donated $5,000 to pay for DNA testing.
“It has the signature of a mob hit,” said Geoff Schumacher, vice president of the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. “Shot in the head. Execution-style, apparently. Probably close-range.”
The discovery has sent Schumacher on a deep dive through Las Vegas mob history. The most prominent gangsters in Las Vegas at that time came from the Chicago mafia, and they were known for skimming off casino profits to fund operations in other cities. Schumacher recently wrote a column for the Daily Mail naming three mafia-connected people who went missing around that time, including his prime candidate: a casino host who ran a resort on Lake Mead and put his boat up for sale just before he disappeared in 1976.
“Whoever killed that person in the barrel and then dumped them certainly could not have been an expert on climate change,” Schumacher said. “Maybe as the lake continues to recede, some more secrets will be revealed.”
The other skeletal remains were happened upon by paddleboarding sisters, who pulled a human jaw out of the sand.
Authorities expect those bones belong to someone who drowned in the lake, as many have over the years, including a man over Father’s Day weekend this month.
Park Service staff are now fielding calls when people find animal bones on the beach, fearing more human bodies. Beachcombers have also discovered skeletons that turned out to be plastic, placed underwater long ago by scuba instructors to entertain their clients.
These days, the shorelines pose the most frequent risks to Lake Mead visitors. The water has fallen so fast that what looks like solid ground is often just a thin veneer of sunbaked dirt covering a morass of tire-sucking mud. So many cars and trucks have gotten stuck trying to approach the lake that a network of volunteers has sprung up to save them. The group calls itself SNORR, which stands for Southern Nevada Off-Road Recovery, and they have already saved more than 500 people this year.
Ean Quiel, the nonprofit group’s director, described a typical scenario: " ‘Hey, I got a Jeep. I’m cool. I’m going to go out on the beach and launch my Jet Ski’ - until all of a sudden, you sink into the mud.”
“It’s not like normal mud you’re used to,” he said. “It’s a lake bed silt that’s been underwater for the last 30 years. It’s a real nasty thing.”
The volunteers - a group of some 60 off-road enthusiasts - have rescued people out searching for barrels, as well as tow trucks responding to service calls who themselves got stuck. On Wednesday evening, SNORR got a call about a white Dodge Ram stuck at Government Wash, a cove on the lake popular with campers and off-roaders.
It turned out to be a couple from Mexico and their three children visiting the area for the first time. They were on their way for an evening swim when their tires spun out.
“We tried to go that way, and we saw this sand. Oh, my God,” said Eusevio Valles, 38, the father.
Brandon Sky, one of the volunteers who responded, quickly surveyed the scene.
“A tow-strap and a tug backwards and it will be out in a second,” he said.
Within about 20 minutes, after pulling the Ram out with a winch, the family was off to search for a campsite.
Sky figured it might not be the last time he sees them. With Lake Mead now a giant mud puddle, he’d rescued some people so often he knew them by name.
“Just try to stay on the actual path - where it’s hard-packed,” he told Valles as he drove off. “But yeah, you can go down that way.”