If you’re familiar with Nevada, then you’re probably familiar with the country’s largest reservoir, but maybe not the history of Lake Mead.
When the Hoover Dam was created in the 1930s, it created a massive reservoir by blocking the Colorado River, which is now the famous lake.
It’s located just 30 miles from Las Vegas and has become a crucial water source for the state–and a place for water sports.
But Nevada’s not the only place that benefits from Lake Mead.
California, Arizona, and even Mexico receive massive amounts of water and energy–in some cases, more than Nevada.
So, what’s the story behind this body of water?
Get ready to become an expert on the history of Lake Mead as we cover the historical moments and interesting facts throughout its lifespan!
1. What Was There Before Lake Mead?
Before the 1930s, Lake Mead didn’t exist; it was simply the Colorado River.
Native Americans thrived in the land around 10,000 years ago.
Back then, the environment was wetter and cooler than the hot, dry Nevada landscape we’re familiar with today.
These tribes lived in abundance while enjoying animals to hunt, plants to harvest, and soil to farm.
The area was even home to giant ground sloths, camels, and horses.
It was quite the happening place before Europeans drove westward.
Jedediah Smith was the first non-native to fully cross the state of Nevada in 1827.
Although his exact route is unknown, it’s plausible he was the first European to see the land that would soon become Lake Mead–it is known that he crossed the Colorado River.
As more and more Americans traveled through the region in the late 19th century, the idea of using the river as a source of power grew as well.
First, in 1890, there was an attempt to reroute the river for irrigation.
Then, in 1910, the Edison Electric Company of Los Angeles devised a plan to build a small dam, but there weren’t enough people around the area to sell the electricity to.
Finally, thanks to the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and along came the famous lake.
Let’s learn more about the history of Lake Mead.
2. Why Was Lake Mead Created?
Lake Mead was created to have a dependable water supply and source of electricity and manage river flooding.
Cities in the surrounding area were vastly expanding.
Remember, Las Vegas is just around the corner from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and something’s got to power all those lights, right?
But in actuality, the water and energy generated by Lake Mead are really more for California.
Around 50% of all the power generated at the Hoover Dam goes to the Golden State.
California is also entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of the lake’s water.
Although you may be envisioning massive aqueducts from Lake Mead to California, that’s not exactly how it works.
Because California, and other locations, have dibs on certain amounts of water, Lake Mead is used more as storage.
Further down the river, closer to Lake Havasu, there are, in fact, pipelines sending water into the state.
3. Why is Lake Mead So Important?
Lake Mead (and the Hoover Dam) is not just a historically important project; if anything, it has become more important to modern society as the years rolled on.
But we can’t deny how big of a deal the Hoover Dam was during its early years.
The project began during the middle of the Great Depression.
At the time, the country was unstable and broken, and then, block by block, the world’s biggest dam began to reach towards the sky.
The project employed thousands of people and inspired the country.
It was and still is a marvel of engineering.
Today, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam are responsible for supplying water to 16,000,000 people and energy to 500,000 homes.
Without it, southwestern states, especially California, wouldn’t have been able to expand the way they did.
So, yeah, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam are pretty important parts of the United States’ history.
4. How Long Did it Take for the lake to Fill?
At max capacity, Lake Mead holds around 28 million acre-feet of water–try wrapping your head around that!
The lake is 112 miles long and, when filled, has a depth of around 532 feet.
That’s a lot of water, and its maximum capacity makes it the largest reservoir in the United States.
So, once the Hoover Dam was completed, how long do you think it took for the lake to fill up?
At the end of 1934, water came rushing in. It would take seven years (1941) to reach its maximum level.
That gives you an idea of how massive Lake Mead is, huh?
Because there’s a point between the water levels of 895 to 950 feet that makes the reservoir an inactive pool.
An inactive pool means water levels are high enough to run through the dam but not high enough to generate power–hence, the inactive.
Luckily, the average per-year water levels tend to stay above these levels, but dry periods can leave the Hoover Dam temporarily worthless.
5. When Did Lake Mead Become a National Recreation Area?
In 1936, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation jointly designated the Hoover Dam and 25 miles of the Colorado River as the Bolder Dam Recreation Area.
Eleven years later the name was changed to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Then, in 1964, Lake Mead became the first National Recreation Area.
The designated area consists of 1.5 million acres, and it includes a vast range of terrain: valleys, canyons, mountains, and lakes (Lake Mead and Lake Mohave) as well as the Hoover Dam and the Davis Dam (which created Lake Mohave).
But hold on a minute, what exactly is a National Recreation Area?
The United States’ landscapes are not only beautiful but also rich with resources and energy potential.
Around the 1960s, the federal government wanted to devise a way to ensure federal land was set aside for American citizens to enjoy and improve their quality of life.
Under the Kennedy Administration, the criterion for a National Recreation Area was born.
The original goal, which still stands today, was to preserve natural areas for recreational purposes that would never be more than 250 miles from urban areas–great plan, President Kennedy!
Today, the United States has 40 National Recreation Areas in 26 states under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area has become a hot spot for boating, kayaking, hiking, camping, biking, fishing, hunting, and more!
Between 7 and 8 million people visit each year, and it’s one of those must-do activities when you’re in the Las Vegas area.
6. When Were Lake Mead’s Highest Water Levels?
Lake Mead reached its highest water levels in 1983–reaching a height of 1,225.44 feet.
Before then, the record was set at 1,220.40 feet in 1941.
So, what was going on in 1983 that sent the lake to its peak?
Well, during the summer, there was major flooding, and the water not only completely filled the lake, but it also flooded over the top of the Hoover Dam’s spillways. The only other time that had happened was in 1941.
Hoover Dam’s spillways are located on either side of the dam, 27 feet below. When water spills over, it then flows through massive 50-feet diameter tunnels that connect to the dam’s original diversion tunnels and leads the water downstream.
The spillways should prevent Lake Mead’s water from ever flowing directly over the top of the dam, but, hey, anything could happen.
7. When Were Lake’s Lowest Water Levels?
Consider yourself a part of the history of Lake Mead because you’re living through its lowest levels.
You can tell just by the large bathtub ring around the lake!
In June 2022, the water levels came to 1,043 feet, just barely about the levels that would cause an inactive pool.
Water levels of more than 1,000 feet might not seem like something to raise your eyebrows but compare that with the levels in June 2000 of 1,204 feet–almost a 200-foot decrease!
That’s the same height as some of the most thrilling rollercoaster drops.
Of course, we all want Lake Mead to be full and healthy, but now is a great time to check out the Hoover Dam and get a look at what normally lies below the surface of the water…and it’s a good excuse for a trip to Las Vegas!
8. What Has Been Discovered in Lake Mead?
Big bodies of water tend to swallow up fascinating, random, and concerning things, and Lake Mead is no different.
For the last nine decades, nearly everything you can imagine has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so let’s check out some of the most notorious sunken objects.
Is a lake really a lake if there aren’t shipwrecks in it?
Over the decades, boating accidents have resulted in many sunken ships.
From sailboats to speedboats to small dinghies, you name it, the bottom of Lake Mead’s got it.
More and more of these vessels are becoming exposed as water levels drop.
The ones still submerged make for a great scuba diving experience.
The Town of St. Thomas
Surely there’s not a town under the surface of the lake, right?
Once upon a time, before the Hoover Dam, St. Thomas was a Mormon settlement established in 1865.
Up until its final days, it remained a small town of just a handful of stores and homes and families, but a real, functioning town, nonetheless.
As plans for the Hoover Dam moved forward, the people of St. Thomas sold their land and said goodbye to their homes–sometimes even tearing them down.
It’s said that the last citizen to leave, Hugh Lord, rowed away in 1938.
As the reservoir rose higher and higher, the last of the town’s buildings were slowly swallowed by the water.
Building the Hoover Dam required a lot of cement.
To meet the demands, the Aggregate Classification Plant was created.
Once the job was complete, it made more sense to leave than pack everything up, so it now sits about 100 feet underwater.
The plant has become a popular dive spot.
Yes, bodies have unfortunately been discovered in Lake Mead.
The current skeleton count is at six.
It’s believed that these deaths were linked to the mobsters that once ran Las Vegas.
But no matter which way you look at it, dead bodies are enough to send a shiver down your spine.
If bodies weren’t unsettling enough, there’s also a plane at the bottom of the reservoir.
The crash is a tragic part of the history of Lake Mead that occurred in 1948.
The good news is there were no fatalities.
But the event is so interesting we’re going to talk about it more in the next section!
9. How Did the B-29 Crash into the lake?
On July 21st, 1948, a small crew on a B-29 Superfortress flew from California to an area around Lake Mead to do research on the atmosphere.
About two and a half hours after taking off, the plane’s altimeter malfunctioned, leading the pilots to believe they were hundreds of feet above the water and—BAM! At over 200 miles per hour, the plane crashed into the water.
Of the five crewmembers on board, everyone survived–phew!
The plane, however, sank to the bottom of the lake where it still sits today.
If you’re just itching to see the infamous aircraft, guided dives are available. Just be ready for an eerie experience.
10. How Much Longer Will Lake Mead Last?
Lakes don’t last forever, especially ones that are being used to water cities and towns.
So, when will the final chapter of the history of Lake Mead take place?
It is unlikely that all of Lake Mead to dry up in the coming future.
But it could reach dead pool status multiple times in the next fifty years, which means it would no longer generate power.
Remember, the water needs to be at a level of more than 950 feet in order to generate electricity, and in 2022 we came dangerously close to this level.
11. What Would Happen if Lake Mead Dried Up?
If water levels continue to dry up, what happens next would depend on how quickly the scenario played out and how well the government prepared.
Without Lake Mead and the power generated through the Hoover Dam, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico would lose out on a major source of electricity for millions of people.
These states would be at risk of facing a power shortage and would have to quickly think of new solutions.
Additionally, a prime water supply for irrigation would be down the drain–quite literally–causing a halt to agriculture and potentially causing shortages in certain foods.
Long story short, Lake Mead drying up wouldn’t be good.
This means states need to start planning for a potential disaster now.
Lake Mead ain’t your normal lake!
It has played a crucial role in supplying water and power to southwestern states, and these locations greatly rely on its water levels to remain stable.
But Lake Mead represents a lot more than just hydroelectricity and irrigation.
Being the first National Recreation Area, Lake Mead set the tone for dozens of other destinations that Americans could always turn to when feeling called to nature.
So, whether you’ve already been to the lake or not, it’s worth the trip!
Now that you have an idea of its history, you’ll be able to appreciate its attractions that much more.
Additional ResourcesDon't forget to explore our unbeatable $1 Down Land Listings + Vacation Giveaway!
Would you like to receive weekly emails with our latest blog/properties?
Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.