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World War II-era vessel emerges in Lake Mead's shrinking waters

Park officials believe the Higgins landing craft that has recently surfaced is a World War II surplus vessel that was put into service at the lake before it sank.
Image: World War II-Era Boat Now Visible In Lake Mead, As Its Water Level Continues To Recede
A sunken World War II-era Higgins landing craft that used to be nearly 200 feet underwater near the Lake Mead Marina on July 1 as the waterline continues to lower in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev.Ethan Miller / Getty Images file

A World War II-era vessel is the latest relic to surface from Lake Mead's watery grave as the reservoir shrinks to historic levels.

The Higgins landing craft has emerged sideways in the fast-receding water less than a mile from Lake Mead Marina and Hemingway Harbor. It once lay 185 feet below the surface, according to The Associated Press.

It's the latest discovery at the mysterious lake, where two sets of human remains were found and sunken boats have come to light.

The exact origin of the boat at the park is a mystery, park officials said.

"It is possible that this WWII surplus craft was put into service on the lake for various reasons and then partially salvaged before it sank in its current location," officials with Lake Mead National Recreation Area said.

The National Park Service said, "Whether it sank by accident or was intentionally sunk to get rid of a vessel no longer of use remains unclear."

A number of "distant cousins to the Higgins Boat" are in use daily at the lake doing tasks like firefighting and servicing remote campsites and beaches, the park service said.

D. J. Jenner of Las Vegas Scuba, a company that conducts tour dives in Lake Mead and has led tours of the Higgins boat in the past, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the vessel was used to survey the Colorado River decades ago. It was sold to a marina and later used as an anchor for a breakwater in the sediment, Jenner said.

Image: World War II-Era Boat Now Visible In Lake Mead, As Its Water Level Continues To Recede
A sunken World War II-era Higgins landing craft that used to be nearly 200 feet underwater near the Lake Mead Marina on July 1 as the waterline continues to lower in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev.Ethan Miller / Getty Images file

The company has shared scuba dive video of the Higgins boat when it was fully submerged years ago on its Facebook page.

The park service said it started to dive at the Higgins boat site in 2006.

The craft is made of plywood, and such types were not produced after 1945, park officials said. The Higgins vessel’s engine has removed, and the boat has modifications to open up the space between the two machine gun positions toward the stern, the park service said.

The boat, named after its manufacturer, Andrew Jackson Higgins, is known as a landing craft, vehicle, personnel, or LCVP. It was used in World War II for amphibious beach landings, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

It "changed the way the war was fought," allowing infantry and small vehicles to easily exit through a front ramp and giving armies "more options in choosing their attack points,” according to the museum. Previously, navies had to attack heavily defended ports.

As water levels continue to decline at Lake Mead, more details about the Higgins boat may come to light. 

“Lake Mead hopes everyone has the opportunity to learn about its history and ask that as visitors enjoy the site, they leave it as they found it to avoid damaging the boat," the park service said in a statement.

Lake Mead, the largest human-made reservoir in the U.S., has hit unprecedented lows because of persistent drought conditions, climate change and increased water demands in the Southwestern U.S.

The water level was 1,042 feet above sea level early Tuesday, less than 150 feet away from dead pool status — when the reservoir dips below 895 feet and water cannot flow downstream from the Hoover Dam.

If that happens, it will carry enormous consequences for millions of people across Arizona, California, Nevada and parts of Mexico. Experts say that's a possibility still years away.

In April, water levels reached below an intake valve that began supplying Nevada customers in 1971.