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Lake Mead: Bodies Rise as Depths Drop

On Sunday, May 1, 2022, a body in a barrel was discovered at Lake Mead, the first of four times human remains have been found as the drought continues to sink water levels to historical lows.

Lake Mead is a National Recreation Area and the country’s largest reservoir, capable of holding up to 9.3 trillion gallons of water. It currently sits at 27% capacity, the lowest it has been since 1937, according to NASA’s earth observatory website.

Located 24 miles east of Las Vegas, NE, Lake Mead provides water to approximately 25 million people across Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Mexico.

A PBS article covering the drought quotes Patti Aaron with the Bureau of Reclamation, who describes how the water is used.

“About 75 percent of the water goes to irrigation for agriculture,” Aaron said. “That supplies about 60 percent of the food for the nation grown in the United States.”

Geoff Bennet with PBS adds that nearly 40 percent of Arizona’s water supply comes from Lake Mead. If water levels continue to trend downward and drop below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam’s turbines will stop spinning and providing hydroelectric power.

The short-term solution is to moderate and limit water use.

At a Senate hearing,  Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim said the necessary water cuts are around 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water for 2023. California and Arizona traditionally use about 4.4 million and 2.8 million acre-feet per year respectively.

The long-term solution is likely entwined with combating climate change, given its contribution to the drought in the first place.

As documented on NASA’s climate website, the Earth’s annual mean temperature has warmed by 0.46 degrees Celsius (or 32.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 2000, the same year Lake Mead’s 22-year downward trend began according to pictures, graphs, and data on NASA’s earth observatory website.

On Dec. 1, 2000, Lake Mead was near capacity (1220 feet) and has since sunk to 1043 feet.

At a climate talk in 2021 John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, explained at a 2021 climate talk what the future may hold for the Colorado River as a whole (of which Lake Mead is a part).

“There is more and more evidence on the ground that what the Colorado River is actually facing is not drought but aridification and a permanent transition to a drier future,” Entsminger said.

Carson Towns, a senior at Oklahoma Christian University who has his eyes set on moving to California, heard the news about Lake Mead.

“It’s disheartening,” Towns said. “I don’t think it pertains to me in particular, but it seems that every day there’s further discussion about climate change and this is yet another unfortunate piece of evidence.”

 Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado law school and a former Interior Department official, said there need to be more talks.

“The point I want to emphasize is the need for speed,” Castle said. “It’s just not clear that the river will allow the current pace of discussions to continue without devastating consequences.”

One consequence so far has been the discovery of human remains at Lake Mead, which have been found for a fourth time on Aug. 6 though it is unclear whether or not this is an entirely new set. 

The first of at least three sets of human remains regarded was found back in May. It was in a barrel with a gunshot wound and immediately treated as a homicide.

“Any time you have a body in a barrel, clearly there was somebody else involved,”  Jason Johansson of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police homicide unit told CNN.

Dubbed the Hemenway Harbor Doe, the victim’s identity is still unknown, but given the remains date back roughly to the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, their demise may have been mob-related.

The main concern for the police and FBI – who are assisting this case – is the likely age of witnesses and suspects.

As for the other two sets of remains, one was found on May 7 and is reportedly the most skeletal set making it difficult to date while the other two still have organ tissue available.

The third set – a partial set – surfaced in late July. 

So far, other than the Hemenway Harbor Doe, no foul play is suspected, but the future for Lake Mead and its dependents remains uncertain.

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