Chasing the Water

Lake Mead National Recreation Area has an annual 500-million to 1-billion dollar impact on the local economy - thanks mainly to services that are provided for tourists there. When the lake level drops, so must all the services around it. They call it 'Chasing the Water'. For instance the pipe Las Vegas uses to suck drinking water out of the lake isn’t long enough anymore and the Southern Nevada Water Authority is spending 6-million dollars to extend it because of lower lake levels. KNPR's Ky Plaskon takes a look at the costs of 'Chasing the Water'.

SOUND: Yelling and cranking boat out of water

PLASKON: Frank Mattingly uses a hand winch to crank his broken down boat out of the lake. It seems to be happening all the time now that the lake is low he says.

MATTINGLY: Sand gets in your engine and tears 'em up.

PLASKON: It'll cost him a new water pump. He blames the low lake levels and the dilapidated boat ramp he must use because of it.

SOUND: Lapping water

PLASKON: It's a price of the lakes 70-foot drop over the past 4 years. As barren white islands have risen from the receding blue tide, this nation's first National Recreation Area and its operators are flooded with costs. Boat ramps are part of more than a billion dollars worth of outdated infrastructure at the lake. Some of it is left high and dry as the water line's dropped. Picnic areas sit in the desert, a half-mile from the water line. That's not the kind of experience tourists are looking for according to Lake Mead National Recreation Area Superintendant Bill Dickenson. He says now they have to move the infrastructure to the water line, or 'chase the water' as he calls it.

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DICKENSON: If you think about it in the context of a municipality, we provide all of the same services, water, waste water, roads, we have all the same infrastructure but if you were operating a city and you move your city over a half-mile and continue to provide all your services uninterrupted, that is the challenge we are faces with here at Lake Mead.

PLASKON: The parks service estimates it'll cost 25 million to extend boat ramps alone. But the Park Service isn't the only one experiencing costs chasing the water. Bob Gripentag, Vice President of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor had to cut his 650-boat marina into 4 pieces and drag it 12 miles to deeper water. The lower lake levels have cost him 4 million dollars.

GRIPENTAG: Finantically it was horrendous, for us but over a long period of time it will make up for it. I would not want to do it again in a very short period of time.

PLASKON: Concessionaires like him have hauled more than 28 miles of cable, and 11 million pounds of anchors to stay in business during the drough. Even so, business has suffered.

SOUND: Fish Lips

PLASKON: At boat ramps hundreds of Carp smack their lips pleading for hand-outs from tourists - tourists who have made themselves more scarce in these dry days. From 1999 to 2002 the lake experienced three straight years of declining visitor ship for the first time in 66 years. Last year the number of visitors did rebound 5 percent over 2002, but tourism at the lake remains at its lowest levels since 1986. It's translated to 2 million dollars in lost business for concessionaries like the Las Vegas Boat Harbor.

SOUND: Ferry Horn

PLASKON: Lake Mead Cruises has lost three quarters of a million dollars over the past 4 years.

SOUND: Meeting

PLASKON: Las week Congressman John Porter called a meeting with nearly 100 public and private officials including Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton to tell them he is deeply concerned.

PORTER: There is the impression that the lake is closed, many of the people in California in our tourism base think that because of the drought there still isn't access to Lake Mead, we want to send a message today that the lake is open.

PLASKON: Keeping the lake open requires a new strategy. Reservoirs including lakes Mead and Powell along the Colorado are expected to fluctuate dramatically in the future as precipitation fills them and states deplete them. So reservoirs are using facilities that can be moved.

SOUND: Bathroom door

PLASKON: This bathroom is on skids so it can be dragged up and down the beach depending on the water level. The Park Service is exploring portable picnic areas and boat ramps too. But over the next decade it'll cost 40 million to buy and maintain those kinds of facilities for the public at Lake Mead.

SOUND: Kids in water

PLASKON: Di Schmidtt, brought her children down to the water for the first time in two years - because it seems cleaner these days.

SCHMIDTT: I think it will be worth it. I would rather them spend the money on the lake that helps everyone survive in the desert."

PLASKON: On top of the costs of chasing the water, Lake Mead National Recreation Area officials say they need another 180 million dollars over the next decade to repair 30 year-old facilities. But for now the superintendent says it's a struggle to simply maintaining the recreation area's current funding levels. Congressman Porter intends to put together a plan to increase Lake Mead funding and submit it to the Natural Resources Committee this year.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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