Lake Mead’s receding water levels haven’t reduced Las Vegas visitation overall. But the outdoor recreation sector may not be so lucky
HIS JOB frequently requires him to be indoors to talk about the outdoors, but Colin Robertson is an avid walker, hiker, mountain biker, and downhill skier who loves to take his kids camping. Appointed the first administrator of the Nevada Division of Outdoor Recreation in January 2020, Robertson says hazardous air quality from California’s wildfires forced him and thousands of other outdoor aficionados indoors most of August and the first part of September 2021. (Similar conditions were developing as this issue went to press.)
Robertson, a Reno resident who works in Carson City, compared the smoky, choke-inducing span to “snow days,” when cold, heavy precipitation accumulates on roads and closes schools. “Now we have ‘smoke days’ as a result of fire … and that has pretty serious implications for some of Nevada’s rural communities, in particular, that are oftentimes gateways to places that people want to recreate in Nevada,” Robertson says.
Amid the West’s two searing decades of “dry days,” what is now called a megadrought, Robertson is well aware of its effects on Nevada’s many outdoor activities — and potentially, tourism. “There’s a profound implication for Lake Mead with regard to climate change broadly, and that has implications for the outdoor recreation economy of Southern Nevada,” he says.
Lake Mead’s bathtub ring, the starkest symbol of drought conditions that residents face, has increasingly drawn national attention, but visitation numbers continue to rise, suggesting the West’s water plight isn’t having a major effect on Nevada’s tourism. Las Vegas offers enough indoor activities to make a visitor’s trip worthwhile without ever stepping foot outside.
But those who do can’t help but notice the drought’s many consequences — including diminished or changed outdoor recreation opportunities.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a multi-agency partnership, drought affects the tourism and recreation sectors directly and indirectly.
Drought obviously impedes activities that are dependent on water or snow, such as boating and skiing. In addition, low stream flow and reduced snowpack degrade water quality, which limits activities, increases the risk for contracting waterborne disease, and shortens the season for outdoor recreation and tourism, NIDIS says.
Increased wildfire risk during drought can limit access, and public perceptions about the associated dangers of fire and smoke can lead to fewer visitors and lost revenue from tourism. Drought also alters wildlife populations and behavior, which can curtail hunting, fishing, and photography opportunities.
In Southern Nevada, fewer boat ramps on Lake Mead mean longer wait times to launch. Declining water levels reveal more hazards — including long-forgotten watercraft and, famously, a metal barrel with human remains. Algae blooms, spiking because of higher water temperatures, make the water unsafe for people and pets.
Drought also means shorter ski seasons with less natural snow at Lee Canyon and earlier or extended campfire restrictions throughout the Spring Mountains.
Although NIDIS’ site broadly details how drought degrades the quality of recreation tourism, quantifiable effects in Nevada are hard to come by. “There’s not necessarily a single, consolidated location for information about the data regarding the impact of climate change on outdoor recreation or outdoor recreation-oriented tourism,” Robertson says.
IN 2020, Nevada’s outdoor recreation generated $4 billion in economic impact and represented 50,000 jobs statewide, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Those are good numbers,” Robertson says. “But they are potentially threatened by the impacts of climate change.
“The wildfire piece is one example that I have personally (felt) where there were weeks on end where people couldn’t recreate outdoors safely with the hazardous air quality. And we’re sort of at the beginning of those kinds of impacts.”
When wildfires don’t impede travel, the increased heat propels Californians to Lake Tahoe, which welcomes more than 15 million visitors annually. “Warming temperatures and drier conditions have a direct effect on visitation,” Robertson says. “We know through studies done by the Tahoe Transportation District, for example, and in some of the local government agencies, that traffic doubles into the Lake Tahoe Basin on a 100-degree day compared to a 65-degree day in the surrounding valleys.”
The Tahoe tourism industry is fortunate to have both a summer and winter season, says Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and a professor at the University of California, Davis.
“The heavily touristed Tahoe Basin (is) impacted not just by the Tahoe climate — whether there’s more snow or less snow — but the climate in our draw area like California’s Central Valley and Bay Area and even Reno,” Schladow says. “So, if it’s hot as hell in those places and even if there isn’t much water in Tahoe, people still seem to want to come here for the relief.”
But in the late winter and early spring, when Lake Tahoe’s ski season is wrapping up, the mindset quickly turns from the slopes, Schladow says. “There seems to be a psychological thing. Once the Bay Area starts getting warm and sunny in March and April, people start thinking about doing other things. Skiing disappears from their minds sooner than it would have in the past.”
Schladow, who was quoted in an October 2021 New York Times story headlined “Can California Tourism Survive Climate Change?” says drought has seriously affected trout fishing in the Truckee River and other outdoor recreation endeavors.
“As the environment may get more inhospitable, people may choose cooler, safer climes. It’s dangerous,” Schladow says. “You go off the roads, and your car breaks down, and some people may not want to take that risk. And if there are fewer people doing it, then the risks actually increase for those who continue to do it.”
WHILE GAMBLING and other indoor amenities drive Las Vegas visitation, Southern Nevada’s outdoor recreation assets include Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Valley of Fire, the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, and Gold Butte National Monument.
According to the 2021 Las Vegas Visitor Profile, sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, about 12 percent of the nearly 4,000 people interviewed said they visited or planned to visit nearby places before or after their trip to the city, down from 21 percent in 2016 and 19 percent in 2018. Those visitors most often cited Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead (24 percent, up from 11 percent in 2016 and 12 percent in 2018) as places they meant to go. An LVCVA spokesperson says the agency doesn’t have data that demonstrate a link between drought and visitation.
Travel Nevada’s spokeswoman Tracie Barnthouse says the agency is continuing to invest in programs that drive sustainability and responsible recreation. “We can’t speak to the possible future impacts of climate change, but we are thankful to be a state with a variety of tourism experiences in addition to our outdoor offerings, and we remain committed to educating visitors about how to recreate responsibly in Nevada and be stewards of the land,” Barnthouse wrote in an email.
For example, she says, Travel Nevada joined state and federal agencies in March to sign the Nevada Agreement for Recreation Shared Stewardship that promises its support in protecting Nevada’s precious resources through thoughtful promotion.
The agreement aims to increase collaboration in planning, constructing, and maintaining outdoor recreation infrastructure as well as promoting uniform messaging about responsible recreation, Robertson says. It was not created to address the drought and climate change specifically, he says, but is inclusive of concerns about the climate.
THE DROUGHT is not necessarily all bad news, says Kristen Averyt, a UNLV research professor who focuses on climate change and is Gov. Steve Sisolak’s senior climate advisor.
“Even though there’s a shorter ski season, it might mean that you have a longer mountain biking season. It’s about a changed future where recreation might just look different in terms of the opportunities where we live now versus what they might look like in the future because of how the climate is shifting,” Averyt says.
“Maybe folks won’t come here for one outdoor activity,” she says. “But maybe this opens up the opportunity for another one.”
One example is Lee Canyon’s decade-long effort to build mountain bike trails. The first few advanced and expert trails opened in September after a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity over the protection for the Mount Charleston blue butterfly.
Jim Seely, marketing director of Lee Canyon, says the full buildout of 13 miles of bike trails will help fill the calendar.
“The biggest factor is not necessarily drought as much as it’s wasted time. It’s perishable time. It’s just like a hotel room that doesn’t go occupied,” Seely says. “Summers were kind of going unoccupied. There’s this potential to be a year-round resort with the addition of mountain biking,”
The trails also provide something Las Vegas was looking for — managed, developed mountain biking as opposed to just user-generated trails in unauthorized areas, which is common in other parts of the Spring Mountains, Seely says.
Seely says Lee Canyon draws about 130,000 visitors annually (100,000 in winter). About 70 percent are local, 30 percent tourists, a proportion that is closer to 80/20 since the pandemic, he says.
While Lee Canyon and others in the outdoor recreation industry balance short-term business imperatives with long-term investments, Schladow reminds them that the extremes associated with climate change threaten infrastructure for recreation — trails, roadways, and bridges.
Once all the long-term data are smoothed out, he says, extremely dry periods may be followed by unprecedented wet years or snow years. “What we consider the one-in-100-year flow event is going to be less than one in 10 years in the future. A lot of our infrastructure is designed for that 100-year storm. We’re going to be exceeding that,” Schladow says.
The historic precedents upon which engineering and infrastructure planning has relied are going to be less useful, he adds. “So now we’re relying on computer models, which are based on assumptions about lots of things, including society’s ability to change, change emissions, and things like that. So really, at the end of the day, it’s a lot of very informed, well-based guesswork.”
That guesswork, as well as the innovation and messaging for which Nevada’s tourism industry has long been lauded, will be keys to achieving resilience amid the drought. The drought’s effect on tourism, that intersection of science and economics, is an area ripe for additional research.
“The water situation that we’re faced with more broadly, and not just for recreation, is deeply concerning, as it should be to every single person that lives here in the Western U.S. and beyond,” says Averyt, the governor’s climate-change advisor. “Outdoor rec is just a piece of that puzzle.
“It’s changes across the board, whether we’re talking about irrigated landscaping or we’re talking about outdoor recreation,” she says. “There are lifestyle changes that we’re going to have to make in the face of climate change and what’s happening, and it’s happening everywhere, and everybody’s going to be faced with it, including us here in Southern Nevada.” Φ