By now, the fact that the American West is experiencing a drought is no surprise. And we’ve all probably seen the pictures of empty reservoirs, with the bright “bathtub” rings marking former water lines.

Still, I was surprised when, a week and a half ago, I arrived at Hoover Dam and saw an astonishingly low Lake Mead.

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In the picture above, note the cement wall in the background, which is a spillway for overflow. The water is obviously much lower than that wall, but note also the small object, just right center, that looks kind of like a vehicle with a canopy.

That’s a boat dock. Immediately below, there’s a grayish line, which is a set of stairs leading still further down — but the stairs ultimately descend less than halfway to the water. (You can click the image to enlarge.)

The point here is to give a sense of scale, and to emphasize just how far down the water has dropped. The pictures below show the same spot (click to enlarge), though they don’t quite capture the distance between the boat dock and the water.

Lake Mead hit a record-low level in June. Levels have inched up slightly since, but it’s still very low and very dry.

lake mead

This is bad news for the West, as Lake Mead provides water for parts of Arizona, Nevada, and California. It’s so low, in fact, that Nevada has drilled a new pipeline into the lake in order to suck out water at levels that were previously inaccessible.

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A massive hole, which seemed to be as large as a freeway tunnel.

The entire scene is very much worth seeing now, both because Hoover Dam and its surroundings are an extreme environment (it was 107 degrees when I was there), and because it drives home the severity of the current drought.

The drought also doesn’t diminish the dam’s impressive aesthetics. Famously designed in an art deco style, the dam features numerous flourishes that are lamentably absent on our more modern, utilitarian infrastructure. Among the most curious inclusions are a star map that is supposed to tell future civilizations when the dam was built, as well as a pair of winged statues.

A statue at Hoover Dam.

A post shared by Jim Dalrymple II (@jimdalrympleii) on

For everyone’s sake, I hope the water level in Hoover Dam goes up in the near future. But in the meantime, there’s no better way to confront the extremeness and brutality of the American West — and especially its relationship with water — than to visit Hoover Dam and see that brilliant, white ring.

If you go: Hoover Dam is free to visit and cross, but parking in the garage is $10. There are restrooms, a gift shop, and some limited food options. Tours of the dam cost $30 for adults, while tours just of the power plant cost $15. For more information, visit the Hoover Dam website.

— Jim Dalrymple II

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Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Editor in Chief of Tripping Over the World. Also, reporter at BuzzFeed News.

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