Visiting Hoover Dam, or Where Did All the Water Go?

March 21, 2018

by Steve

If you've followed our posts for any length of time, you probably know that we are generally not "city people." We prefer to spend our time visiting natural wonders in national parks and the like. We made an exception this winter by staying in Tucson for 4 1/2 months, and we made another exception by visiting Las Vegas. Near to Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam, a monumental undertaking when it was built, and still an impressive structure. And we had never been there.

Built on the Nevada/Arizona border, the dam was constructed to tame the mighty Colorado river and provide water for crop irrigation in the Imperial Valley, as well as water and hydro electric power for growing cities. The dam was built from 1931 to 1935, and at the time it was the single largest government contract ever awarded. It took a partnership of six construction companies to plan and build, and the project employed over 5,000 workers at its peak. As it was in the middle of the desert, a city, Boulder City, was constructed to house the workers, and train lines were laid to bring materials to the site. There were two concrete plants at the site, and many of the steel parts for the dam were too large to be transported and had to be fabricated on-site.

Until 1947, it was called Boulder Canyon Dam, even though it was built in Black Canyon. There had been many years of analysis done to find the best location for the dam. It came down to two finalists (from seven): Black Canyon and Boulder Canyon. Because Boulder Canyon had been long considered to be the likeliest location, the project had been informally referred to as Boulder Canyon Dam.When Black Canyon was selected as the best location, the name Boulder Canyon somehow stuck. In 1947, Congress changed the name was changed to Hoover Dam to honor Herbert Hoover, who, when he was serving as President Harding's commerce secretary, figured out how to settle the long-running dispute over who would control the allocation of water.

After the dam was finished, it took six years to completely fill Lake Mead behind it. The dam rises over 700 feet, and that's a whole lot of water--at least when the reservoir is full. Unfortunately it has not been full in a long time. So all the statistics about the amount of water in the lake and the miles of shoreline are no longer valid. At the time I write this, the lake is down about 125 feet. It's nowhere near the top of the dam.

The white line in the photo shows the normal water level when the lake is full. The dam has two gigantic spillways, one on the Nevada side and one on the Arizona side. These are made to allow water to bypass the dam during periods of high water flow so that water does not over-top the dam.

Here's the Arizona one. The last time water flowed through here was 35 years ago in 1983. They tell us it would take 10 years of average snow in the Rockies to refill the lake, and we haven't had many average years in a long time. The dam has a small boat dock located below the Nevada spillway. Since the lake water keeps going down, they have had to put in stairs to get down to the water level. One set of stairs has been abandoned, and a much longer one put in its place. Which only leaves you about a 20 foot drop down to the dock!

While the low water level looks pretty dramatic at the dam, it's far more noticeable along the shores of Lake Mead. The roads that used to go along the shoreline are now a couple miles away from the water. If you're a boater and plan to put your boat in at the Las Vegas Bay boat launch, you will need to find another location. Here's a picture of the boat launch. 

We are standing near the end of the original boat ramp.The line in the foreground shows where they extended the boat ramp. You can see a car in the distance at the end of the extension but you cannot see any water, only bushes and small trees. So while they say that Lake Mead has 550 miles of shoreline, I sincerely doubt it. Not when there are entire bays of the lake, like this one, that have been bone-dry for years.

Here's some fun facts about Hoover Dam:

  • The dam was built over a four-year period. (1931--1935) The bridge that bypasses the dam took seven years to build.
  • Until the bridge bypassing the dam was built (2010), there was a 2 1/2 hour backup on each side of the highway waiting to cross the dam.

  • There is tighter security at the Hoover Dam visitor center than there is at a US airport. Jane always carries snacks in her purse in case of a blood-sugar drop, but apparently peanuts and protein bars are a security hazard; they were confiscated. This same level of security does not extend to vehicles driving over the dam.
  • The dam is designed with Art Deco ornamentation. You can read more about that here. Or if you'd just like to look at pretty pictures, go here.
  • The concrete used in the dam is still curing. It has about 25 years to go.
  • Concrete gives off heat as it cures. The amount of concrete in the dam (it is 660 feet thick at the base) would have taken 150 year to cool. So they built cooling pipes into concrete and a refrigeration plant to pump cold water through the pipes. The refrigeration plant was capable of producing 1000 pounds of ice per day. That refrigeration plant is now cooling an ice rink in Phoenix.
  • 20,000 people came out to Nevada to apply for work on the dam during the Great Depression. The number of workers on the dam averaged 3400, with a peak of 5200.
  • 96 men lost their lives in accidents during construction.
  • Las Vegas depends on Lake Mead for 90% of its water. While Las Vegas has a population of 630,000 it had around 40,000,000 visitors last year. They use a lot of water.
  • There's no mention of water conservation anywhere in Las Vegas that we saw.
  • Las Vegas had two water intakes in Lake Mead. As a result of falling lake levels, both were in danger of being above lake level and going dry. Their solution was to drill a new water intake at the bottom of Lake Mead, at a cost of $817 million.  Read more here.
Hoover dam was built to take on one of the greatest challenges of its day: taming and controlling the Colorado River. Now it seems we have an even greater challenge: taming and controlling our own water usage, so that there will be water for the generations to come.

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