ROOSEVELT LAKE, Ariz. — Sarah Huston and her husband, Tom, spend their afternoons catching catfish and bass on Roosevelt Lake. When it gets too hot, they cast their lines off a shaded dock or relax inside their air-conditioned boat.
The couple considers the central Arizona lake a slice of paradise. But they feel they may not be able to enjoy it much longer.
“This lake is dropping rapidly,” said Tom Huston, 72. “The sad part is, there is no place to go. All lakes in the Southwest are dry.”
The drought that geologists say could be the worst in 500 years is grounding boaters, creating hazards for water enthusiasts across the West and costing the boating industry and states millions to revamp ramps and move marinas to entice visitors.
Roosevelt Lake, about 110 miles northeast of Phoenix, is 30 percent full and only three of the lake’s nine ramps are operating, said Quentin Johnson, recreation specialist for the Tonto Basin Ranger District, which manages the lake.
The drought also is hurting business at Roosevelt Marina. Only 30 percent of the slips are full, said Shane Cooper, who works at the dock.
At Lake Mead, on the Arizona-Nevada line, about 200 miles of shoreline have disappeared, leaving a white bathtub ring on the surrounding rocks, signs of where the lake used to be.
The lake, which was created by the construction of Hoover Dam, has dropped 80 feet to its lowest level since the 1960s, said Roxanne Dey, spokeswoman for Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
One marina operation had to be uprooted from its home of more than 40 years and moved to a deeper area. Three boat ramps also have been closed and others have been extended using park entrance fees and state money. The repairs are costly, but recreation officials say they can’t be avoided because unsubmerged ramps scrape boat engines.
Hazards and artifacts
Besides contending with dry ramps, boaters are dodging sandbars, reefs — even the remains of a town, Dey said.
St. Thomas, an early Mormon settlement in Nevada that was abandoned when Hoover Dam was built, has resurfaced. The steps of a school house and foundations from other buildings poke through exposed soil in some areas, Dey said.
Despite the drought, there is still plenty of water for boaters on the lake, said Bob Walsh, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
“What people need to be careful of is that the character of the lake has changed because it has dropped so much,” Walsh said. “There are objects out there that have not been visible for years.”
Things that were once hidden below the water also are resurfacing at Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line. At more than 186 miles long, Lake Powell is the country’s second-largest manmade lake and one of two main reservoirs on the Colorado River.
For some boaters visiting Lake Powell, its new views are welcome.
Visitors are discovering canyons and red rock formations that were once submerged, and docking at beaches that didn’t exist before, said Karen Scates, deputy director of the Arizona Office of Tourism.
Bill Johnson, of Peoria, Ariz., who took his 27-foot cabin cruiser to Lake Powell in June, said he is eager to see newly emerged prehistoric rock drawings and carvings when he visits again in September.
“It’s a whole new experience,” he said.
Beyond the West
The problems of drought aren’t limited to the West.
In Nebraska, Lake McConaughy is 25 percent full — a near-record low, said Nik Johanson, assistant superintendent of Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area. Brick and concrete foundations of old farmsteads are poking out of the water and park officials find new trees protruding from the state’s largest reservoir daily.
South Dakota has taken a financial hit trying to maintain one of the Missouri River’s main reservoirs. Lake Oahe used to extend from near Pierre up about 50 miles into North Dakota. It now stops near the state line.
Two marinas on Lake Oahe that used to have 140 slips for people to tie up their boats now have 40, said Bob Schneider of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Out of 32 boat ramps, only 13 remain open.
The state has spent $2.7 million in the last two years to maintain access on the lake, Schneider said. But they are still losing money because people don’t know the lake is open, and those who do often don’t want to wait in line, Schneider said.
It will take heavy mountain snows to replenish water sapped from the reservoir by years of drought.
“The biggest concern is the effect on the tourism economy,” Schneider said. “What we really need is a good, wet winter in the Rocky Mountains to start turning it around.”
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