After Drought, Waters In Lake Mead Start To Rise

After years of drought, water levels in Lake Mead on the Colorado River are starting to rise again. That has business owners at the lake scrambling to move their shops up the shore — they moved down as the water level dropped.

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Lake Mead is rising. For the first time in more than a decade, the water level in the country's largest reservoir is going up. Heavy winter snowfall in the mountains of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado is melting and flowing into the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead.

And as NPR's Ted Robbins reports that's good news for a parched region.

TED ROBBINS: The sound of moving water is usually soothing. When it's rising water lapping at the dock of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor, though, it's practically cause for celebration.

GAIL KLEIN: It's a wonderful thing.

ROBBINS: Gail Klein manages the harbor, which is really a good 20 miles from Las Vegas. It's a floating marina with a restaurant, gas station, and slips filled with more than a thousand boats. Everything has to move with the lake level. Down and out when it falls, up and in towards the shore when it rises. For a long time, until just two months ago, it's only gone out.

KLEIN: That's the first time we moved the marina in, versus following lower lake levels since 1997. And we all got together and thought do we remember how to do this?

ROBBINS: And?

KLEIN: Yeah, yeah it always comes back.

ROBBINS: Although it's not cheap, Klein says it'll cost close to a million dollars to move the whole thing a number of times before the lake stops rising. But she's not complaining. Who in the arid Southwest complains about more water? And her business is - sorry - staying afloat.

Unidentified Man #1: This is a power boat; those are speedboats.

ROBBINS: Lake Mead is the country's fifth most visited national park. But recreation - boating, camping, fishing - is not even the main reason it was created when water began filling the canyons here in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOVERNMENT FILM)

Unidentified Man #2: Hoover Dam and its power plant work around the clock to serve water and power needs of the Pacific Southwest.

ROBBINS: Who knows if the people who created that old government film realized that roughly 30 million people in California, Arizona, and Nevada would eventually depend on Colorado River Water from Lake Mead? By last year, the level had dropped so low that cities in Arizona and Nevada faced not getting their allotment.

JOHN ENTSMINGER: When we woke up on September 1, 2010, a very short time ago, we were looking at the very real probability that we could have some shortages.

ROBBINS: John Entsminger is assistant general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. He says the current wet year means no shortages for now.

ENTSMINGER: I guess we just don't want it to be seen as a panacea. It's one good year in a period of 12 extremely bad years.

ROBBINS: Lake Mead is expected to continue rising through the end of this year. Still, it won't come close to its highest water level, marked by a white ring of calcium carbonate deposited on the cliffs surrounding the lake in the 1980s.

ENTSMINGER: I guess to put this entire thing in perspective. By the end of this calendar year, with the lake coming up as much as it will, Lake Mead will be at 56 percent of capacity.

ROBBINS: Which is why water utilities all along the Colorado stress water conservation. But conservation is apparently not enough. The Pacific Institute, a water policy group, recently released a study showing cities using Colorado River water have reduced per capita consumption by an average of 1 percent each year between 1990 and 2008. That's huge. Southern California has especially reduced water use.

Problem is, during the same period, population grew so much in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas it negated the savings.

ENTSMINGER: So, as great as this year has been, the pragmatist on the water management side of the equation would say we're now back to half full.

ROBBINS: Still, better half full than facing a shortage, whether you're on a farm, in a city or out on Lake Mead in a boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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ROBERTR SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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