By Vernon Robison
Moapa Valley Progress
Water levels have been steadily rising at Lake Mead thanks to healthy runoff from last winter’s heavy snowpack on the western slopes of the Rockies. All that Colorado River water is raising the lake levels and bringing the water’s edge closer and closer to the National Park Service (NPS) Overton Beach boat ramp. The launch is currently still high and dry but, according to current projections, the end of the ramp could be underwater again by late summer or early fall.
Water levels at the lake are currently at an elevation of 1103 ft above sea level and rising swiftly. By next February, the level will have risen about 36 feet to 1142.
The lake’s record low was reached last November at 1081.
Still, local boaters and fishermen shouldn’t rush to hook up their boat trailers and expect to launch at Overton Beach anytime soon. NPS officials say there are no plans to re-open the area or its boat launch this year.
Much of the reason for the continued closure centers around federal funding to the park, said NPS spokesman Andrew Muñoz in an interview with the Progress. With the facility at Overton Beach fully shut down, it would now cost over $50,000 to get it up and running again.
NPS officials were forced to close down the freshwater system and wastewater facilities at Overton Beach in the spring of 2010 when the lake level dropped below 1095 ft. in elevation; the lowest point that still would allow these systems to operate. The shutdown cost the Park Service nearly $50,000. With no services, facilities or personnel left in the area, the NPS finally closed the road to Overton Beach at the turnoff from the North Shore highway.
Given the high cost of mothballing and then restarting the Overton Beach systems, the NPS will most likely wait before getting them up and running again. The Service wants to make sure that lake levels don’t just drop again and force another closure to the area, Muñoz said.
“We would want to see a couple of years of consistently rising water levels before we go to the expense of bringing Overton Beach back online again,” Muñoz said. “It wouldn’t make sense to go to the expense of bringing it up only to have to shut it down again a few months later because the water levels dropped again.”
In the meantime, the NPS is hesitant to re-open the road and allow boat traffic to access the ramp even when launching is possible. NPS officials fear that allowing vehicle access to the area without adequate services, supervision and patrolling would result in vandalism to the mothballed infrastructure in the area, Muñoz said
“It isn’t the folks in Overton that we are worried about,” Muñoz said. “If it was only Overton residents I don’t think there would be any problem with allowing boats to launch down there. But when you open it to the general public, you introduce the issue of the unknown. We could run into some real problems if we aren’t doing things like patrols and regular trash pickup in the area.”
But even if the water levels are shown to hold over a sustained period of time, there is some uncertainty whether NPS personnel and resources will be available to re-open the Overton Beach area down the road, Muñoz said.
“We are waiting to see what the 2012 budget will look like,” Muñoz said. “But we are expecting a 5-10% cut to our budget.”
Such a cut would bring a significant reduction to Park staff, especially on the north end of the Lake, Muñoz said.
“We don’t have any plans to reduce our existing levels of service at Echo Bay specifically,” Muñoz said. “But budget cuts like this could contribute to service levels being diminished park-wide.”
That could mean that restrooms would only be cleaned once every other day rather than every day; or fish cleaning stations needing repair might experience longer down times before staff could get to them, Muñoz said.
It might also mean that park staff will not be available to patrol Overton Beach and, thus, allow it to open.
“It presents something of a puzzle,” Muñoz said. “If we are down to only two or three people at Echo Bay, and one of them has to spend the equivalent of a workday each week travelling back and forth to patrol Overton Beach, that significantly reduces the level of service at Echo Bay.”
In a separate matter, NPS officials are making final preparations for construction to begin on the new North Shore fee entrance station. The station will be located on the highway just south of the Valley of Fire turnoff. Construction is expected to begin in the next few weeks.
“No significant road closures or traffic delays are anticipated on the North Shore road because of this project,” Muñoz said.
Construction on the fee station is expected to be complete by November. But the station is not expected to be operational until early next summer.
“Depending on staffing and budget, the station should be open by around Memorial Day 2012,” Muñoz said.
Current entry fees at Lake Mead are $10 per vehicle and $16 per vessel. Annual passes may be purchased for $30.