By Sarah FeldbergFeatures correspondent
When it was built in the 1930s, the Hoover Dam didn’t just tame the Colorado River – it also created a massive lake that today hides shipwrecks, train tracks and cement tunnels alike.
Beneath the surface of Lake Mead, located 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, a world unfolds in shades of teal. Palm-sized bluegill fish nibble the meat from cracked mussels, natural stone spires rise from the depths and shipwrecks slump along the silt bottom. But the lake also hides an array of historic landmarks that only scuba divers can visit: the remains of the massive Depression-era construction project that built the Hoover Dam, including cement tunnels and railroad tracks now decaying in the dark.
In 1931, constructionbegan on what then was called the Boulder Dam. The project sought to tame the erraticColorado River, prevent flooding in California’s Imperial Valley and generateelectricity for the expanding west. Its other purpose was to add jobs: launchedby the Bureau of Reclamation during the heart of the Great Depression, theHoover Dam’s construction employed around 21,000 people and fundamentallychanged the surrounding area, building an infrastructure that would lend itselfto even more productivity. Train tracks were laid and power lines erected. BoulderCity sprung up to house the workers. When the dam was completed five yearslater, it stood 726ft tall, had claimed at least 96 lives and created LakeMead, the largest reservoir in the United States.
Today, on summerweekends, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area wakes up early. Marinas buzzwith families readying for a day on the water and kids toss bread to massivecarp that guard the docks. Meanwhile, the lake fills with speedboats, jet skis,kayaks and even the Desert Princess, a three-level paddleboat that cruises to thedam packed with camera-toting tourists intent on staying dry.
But look closely atthe boats out on the water and occasionally you’ll spot a bright red flag witha single diagonal white stripe – the universal sign for scuba divers.
“Lake Mead isconsidered one of the top freshwater dives in the whole world,” said BillDuckro, a local scuba instructor. “There’s 700 miles of shoreline. You coulddive out there at a different dive site almost every day the rest of your lifeand not hit them all. And the depths. Even though the lake has dropped morethan 130ft, it’s still more than 500ft deep in some places.” After careers as botha police officer and casino wedding chapel minister, Duckro got certified as ascuba diver at age 51 and immediately fell in love with the sport. Today, heowns the Scuba Views dive shop in north Las Vegas, where he leadscharters and teaches recreational diver and more advanced certification courses.In a wet suit, he looks like a cross between a nautical Santa Claus and Dog theBounty Hunter, with the kind of calm, authoritative demeanour that new scubadivers want when their brain kicks into panic mode the first time out.
With Duckro as guide, myfiancé and I headed to Middle Boulder Island for the first of two open waterdives in our scuba certification course. We docked just past the Las Vegas BoatHarbor along the rocky shore beneath the concrete shell of a massive tank that jutsoff the island. A souvenir from the dam’s construction, the tank once cleanedthe water that was used to create the Hoover Dam’s concrete.
“We used to hit thattank 80ft underwater,” Duckro said. Today, it’s on dry land.
At its peak in 1998,Lake Mead measured some 1,215ft above sea level, its cool blue-green waters providing amassive break from the surrounding desert scrub. But a persistent drought anddecreasing runoff over the last 10-plus years have dropped the water level bymore than 100ft. It is now at a historic low, leaving a glaring, white “bathtubring” of mineral deposit around the shoreline and driving dozens of headlinesannouncing impending doom for the US Southwest, Nevada and the Las VegasValley, all of which depends on the reservoir for fresh water.
Still, as we sankbelow the surface, there was plenty to see. The tiered ground beneath the tank wasbusy with fish accustomed to the sight of scuba divers. Duckro grabbed a coupleof the invasive Quagga mussels that have infiltrated the lake and held theircracked shells out on an open palm. The fish darted in for timid tastes as wewatched, wide-eyed. On the silt floor some 30ft down, train tracks stretchedinto the murky distance.
Though the droppingwater level of the lake is gravely concerning, it does have a faint silverlining for scuba divers: some sites that were once too deep for recreationaldivers are now within the certification’s limits.
One such site is the HooverDam train hopper, where trains would dump loads of rock to be crushed anddivided into the aggregate piles. A concrete tunnel runs under the hopper – 8fthigh, 10ft wide, 125ft long and totally black inside – a thrilling experiencefor advanced divers. Recreational divers can explore from outside the tunnel.
Duckro’s other favouritesites include Wishing Well Cove, where wind-sculpted cliff walls narrowdramatically underwater, and the Crack, where natural rock spires rise from thebottom in a beautiful formation. “It’s like you’re going through a maze,” he saidof the latter.
The depths of LakeMead hide dramatic wrecks, too, like the PBY-5a Catalina plane that crashed intothe lake in 1949 while attempting a water landing. The pilot and mechanic wentdown with the aircraft, which now rests a short boat ride east of Boulder Harbor.Even after 60 years in the water “everything is pretty well preserved”, said SteveFanell, an experienced diver who works in marine salvage and has been exploringLake Mead for 16 years.
Wreck Alley, a seriesof boat wrecks just off Sentinel Island, is well-known among the local scubacommunity. “The biggest wreck there is called the Southern Cross,” Fanell said.“It’s about a 37ft to 38ft wooden sailboat. It’s like the mother ship of allthe wrecks.”
But regardless ofsailboat size or fame among divers, Lake Mead’s underwater world is still somethingof a mystery to the people stuck on the surface. It’s a secret kept among aselect group of people who dip below the waves.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the depth of Lake Mead. This has been fixed.
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Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
The Hoover Dam, built in the 1930s, is a massive concrete arch-gravity dam located on the Colorado River, about 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Its construction aimed to tame the erratic Colorado River, prevent flooding in California's Imperial Valley, generate electricity, and provide jobs during the Great Depression. The dam stands 726 feet tall and created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States .
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a popular recreational destination located in Nevada and Arizona. It encompasses the vast Lake Mead reservoir and surrounding land. The area offers various activities such as boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, and scuba diving. Lake Mead is considered one of the top freshwater dive sites in the world, with over 700 miles of shoreline and depths exceeding 500 feet in some places.
Scuba Diving in Lake Mead
Lake Mead offers unique scuba diving opportunities due to its underwater landscape and the presence of historic landmarks from the construction of the Hoover Dam. Scuba divers can explore the remains of the massive construction project, including cement tunnels, railroad tracks, and even shipwrecks. The dropping water level of Lake Mead has made some sites accessible to recreational divers that were previously too deep. Popular dive sites include Middle Boulder Island, Hoover Dam train hopper, Wishing Well Cove, and Wreck Alley.
Current Water Level and Drought Concerns
The article mentions that Lake Mead's water level has dropped significantly due to a persistent drought and decreasing runoff over the past decade. This has led to concerns about water scarcity in the US Southwest, Nevada, and the Las Vegas Valley, which rely on the reservoir for fresh water. The dropping water level has also exposed a "bathtub ring" of mineral deposits around the shoreline .
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