The Body in the Barrel

At dawn on June 29, I set out early from Casino Royale for Callville Bay. By now Lake Mead’s level has dropped to an elevation of 1,043 feet, leaving Las Vegas’s primary water intake high and dry. This fact is more symbolic than catastrophic; in 2015, the water district drilled a new intake at the bottom of the lake that will function even if it recedes to a dead-pool level of 895 feet. Five of the lake’s six boat ramps are closed. Two weeks before my visit, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water District told a U.S. Senate committee: “What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near.”

I drive an hour through parched desert, then crest over a rocky lump, finally seeing the glittering, aquamarine lake. The hot concrete boat ramp is the size of two football fields placed end to end. I coast to the bottom and park at a sign that reads 2008 Lake Level. It’s just after 8 A.M., the sun beating down, the temperature already in the upper nineties.

Lindsey Melvin, the nurse who discovered the second body, is waiting for me with two inflated paddleboards. She wears shorts, neoprene booties, a hooded sun shirt, and a visor, her long hair pulled into a ponytail.

I ask how much drinking water she has. She shrugs. “I have a filter, as long as you don’t mind drinking lake water.”

We follow a one-lane paved road that extends a few hundred yards past the ramp, turning to gravel for a ways. At a sign reading Lake Mead Level 2021, a few golf carts are parked and a crude bridge crosses an arroyo. The vibe feels apocalyptic.

We walk on a creaky gangplank that snakes down a quarter-mile of dry lake bed, flanked with pipes and hoses and conduits, maritime flotsam baking in the dust on either side, occasional gaps spanned with sheets of plywood, all jerry-built on floatable plastic blocks now mired in dirt.

The reason such effort has gone into maintaining access is that, down in the bay, dozens of big boats are moored in the marina. Each week, the entire structure—with its fuel pumps and sun awnings and snack store and break wall of old tractor tires—is somehow pushed farther into the lake as the shoreline advances.

I watch Lindsey heave the enormous paddleboard off the dock and into the lake.

“How tall are you anyway?” I say.

“What are you saying, I’m short?” she snaps. “I’m five foot two-point-five.”

We stand on the boards and paddle. We soon encounter a raggedy old captain on a rickety houseboat tied to shore. He tells us he was marooned on a sandbar for three weeks as the lake receded, leaving him 40 yards away from the water. Someone pulled him off with a powerboat, cracking his hull in the process, and now he can’t get the boat off the lake, nor can he patch it in the water. He seems flummoxed. “Water was dropping eight inches a day,” he says.

How long will it take for Lake Mead to drop that final 50 feet? It depends largely on snowpack in the Rockies, which feeds the Colorado River, and in the Wind River Range, which feeds the Green. In 2020, the lake dropped around 20 feet, and in 2021 another 20. Scientists warn that the so-called millennium drought, now in its 22nd year, is the worst in 1,200 years, and that because of a warming planet, we might as well regard such changes as the new normal.

Lindsey has an uncommon enthusiasm for water infrastructure; her now retired dad was employed by the water district. “It was great for take-your-kids-to-work day,” she tells me. “The whole water-reclamation system in Vegas is amazing compared with everywhere else. Other places just dump it out to the ocean.”

We paddle to the spot where she found the body. The cottonwoods and willows where she saw the beaver lodge are high and dry; the thirsty trees will probably not survive.

I ask if finding the bones was disturbing. “Not at all,” she says. She’s OK with dead bodies. “Actually, if I could choose my dream job, it would be in the coroner’s office.”

“Why’s that?”

“Everyone’s already dead. They don’t yap atcha.”

We proceed to a sheltered cove. A coyote pokes his head from behind a rock, stares, retreats, turns his head for a final look, then trots off. We pull up to shore and don masks and snorkels. The water is the perfect temp for a 110-degree day: cool enough to refresh, warm enough to swim as long as you want.

If you’re in deep water, it’s hard to see anything on the bottom, so we hug the craggy coast, looking mostly at sand and rocks. But Lindsey brings an exuberance that is contagious. She taps my shoulder and we pop our heads above water.

“There’s a pile of fish bones!” she says. “Want to dig it up?” As I float around seeing minnows and pebbles, she dives to retrieve fishing rods and sunglasses. She hoists a very heavy steel anchor from the bottom. “These things are worth money,” she says. “My dad found some that he cleaned up and sold on eBay.”

Lindsey tells me that she still loves being in Henderson, but she also dreams of bigger adventures.

“I’d like to see the Great Barrier Reef,” she says. “Before it’s gone.”

We paddle to a farther cove, and I get in the spirit of things. I watch huge catfish emerge from caves as I float above. We find a fat blue fish lurking among underwater weeds; Lindsey dives to poke it with a fishing rod, and it darts away. I retrieve a heavy length of rope. And then I feel Lindsey tug at my fin. She points down.

A barrel.

Wordlessly, we dive for it. I feel the pressure in my ears, and we take turns poking our heads into the barrel’s open mouth.


By noon the winds are whipping foot-high whitecaps across the lake. We paddle toward the marina. “I’ve only been alive 28 years and I’ve already seen this place change so much, and not for the better,” she says. “This is crazy, but I actually do love it here. I don’t know what it will be like in a few years.”

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