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The Bodies Are Piling Up in Lake Mead

Photo: Roger Kisby for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The largest man-made reservoir in the United States is in serious trouble. Since 2000, Lake Mead’s water level has dropped by close to 150 feet, thanks to a combination of climate change and the worst Southwest drought in over a thousand years. In 2021, the federal Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage for the reservoir, the first time it has done so since Lake Mead was flooded by the creation of the Hoover Dam in 1935.

As its bathtub rings sit higher and higher with each passing year, a smaller — and stranger — problem is emerging in the lake. Over the past three months, three bodies have been found there. The latest unexpected discovery came on Monday, when the National Park Service announced that an afternoon visitor to Swim Beach on the Nevada side of the lake saw human remains poking out of the water. Authorities haven’t yet determined a cause of death.

In May, paddleboarders found a body, thinking at first that it was a bighorn sheep. “It wasn’t until I saw the jawbone with a silver filling that I was like, ‘Whoa, this is human,’ and started to freak out,” one of them told the New York Times.

Las Vegas police detectives say there is no evidence of foul play in the death of the person discovered by the paddleboarders. But weeks before that find, a couple walking along the lake’s shoreline came across a barrel with a body stuffed inside. The condition of the clothes and shoes found suggested the person died sometime between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. Investigators believe the victim died from a gunshot wound. “It’s really odd in the sense that had the lake never receded, we would never have discovered the body,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lieutenant Ray Spencer said after the victim was found.

The timeline of the homicide and the crude disposal method bring to mind a grittier era of Vegas history, though no connection has been made to a Casino-style hit. But if Lake Mead continues to recede, more bodies could see the light of day. In 1948, an Air Force pilot on an atmospheric research flight crashed a B-29 Superfortress into the northern reach of the lake, which hasn’t been recovered. Nearby sit the ruins of an ancient Pueblo complex, including a building with over 100 rooms. Already, a Mormon ghost town — which sat 60 feet below the surface of the lake until recently — can be visited by day-tripping hikers. Who knows what’s next?

The Bodies Are Piling Up in Lake Mead