A Conversation to Remember: Washougal man discusses climate change with Vice President Kamala Harris

Randy Lavasseur, acting superintendent of National Park Service's Lake Mead National Recreation Area, met with Harris during vice president's October visit to Southwest states

“It was a really good conversation,” said Washougal resident Randy Lavasseur of a 10-minute discussion he had with United States Vice President Kamala Harris last month.

The vice president was at Lake Mead in Nevada on Oct. 18, to talk about President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which calls for the nation’s largest investment in climate change mitigations $555 billion worth of policies President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan,

Lavasseur, the acting superintendent of the National Park Service’s Lake Mead National Recreation Area, told Harris that climate change has harmed the United States’ largest recreation area.

“This is the true picture of climate change,” Lavasseur told Harris, referring to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. “Climate change is here, it’s moving, and we need to take action.”

“I think I had about 10 minutes (with her), a good time to chat about some of our deep concerns about what this is going to do in the long term, not just here in our basin but throughout the Colorado River (area),” Lavasseur said. “I was really pleasantly surprised about her existing knowledge. She clearly had been pre-briefed, so she was asking really wonderful questions.”

Lavasseur has worked for the United States federal government for the past 20 years. He currently serves as a deputy regional director for the United States Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, supervising operations for 63 park service sites in six western states and three United States territories while directly or indirectly managing 5,000 employees and more than 76,000 volunteers.

In July, Shawn Benge, the National Park Service’s deputy director of operations, handed Lavasseur a new temporary assignment as the acting superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area which is located in Nevada and Arizona.

“He knew I knew the operation here really well, and that I could step in and start making decisions,” Lavasseur said. “They had operational budget issues that they needed me to fix, staffing issues that were in turmoil without having leadership here on the ground. They (Henge) said, ‘Randy, we just need to get some stability there.'”

Record drought conditions meant Lavasseur had to come up with a plan for Lake Mead, where water levels have fallen to unprecedented levels. In August, federal officials declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River. The drought conditions mean Southwest U.S. states, including Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, which rely on the Colorado River and Lake Mead, will likely face water shortages throughout 2022.

“I would say the No. 1 thing that we’re dealing with is the significance of what climate change is providing as far as the water basins’ decline,” Lavasseur said. “Last year, there was 83 percent snowpack in the Colorado Rockies that really turned into about 30 percent hydrology, meaning that by the time the snow melted, only 30 percent of it actually went into hydrology — into the river and down the basin. The rest of it, the soils were so dry, it just absorbed in the soil.”

In September, the United States Bureau of Reclamation released projections showing an even worse outlook for the Colorado River than originally predicted.

“That was really the final straw, when Shawn told me to get down here,” Lavasseur said. “We got water projections that were going to put us in numbers that (indicated) we’d have to close marinas and launch ramps. Since I’ve been down here, I’ve had to close two launch ramps because of the low water levels.”

In Nevada, Harris told reporters the Lake Mead situation “is where we’re headed” if we do not address climate change with federal legislation.

Ahead of her talk in Nevada, White House officials told the Associated Press that Harris would “emphasize that climate change is poised to make extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves more frequent, expensive and harmful.”

“Look at where the water has receded over just the last 20 years,” the vice president said, referring to the “bathtub ring” of minerals that marks where the reservoir’s water line previously stood. “That space is larger than the height of the Statue of Liberty … This is about thinking ahead, recognizing where we are and where we’re headed. This is literally about life.”

Lavasseur’s work has the potential to significantly impact livability in the Lake Mead area.

“We’re on the right track for where climate change is taking us or where the water levels are taking us,” he said. “But I know that some of the decisions that we’re going to have to make are going to make some of our gateway communities struggle. That’s going to be the most difficult part when I leave here, knowing that some of our properties and gateway communities in Arizona — by not having a launch ramp or marina — could potentially (become) ghost towns.”

The Washougal resident said he has been pushing to diversify the National Parks Service’s recreational offerings.

“We want to provide diverse recreation to where it’s not completely water-based,” Lavasseur said. “In our strategic planning we have already made decisions that if a community wants to look at off-road highway opportunities, kayaks, mountain biking or trails, we’re there. We’ll start pushing projects to help those communities so they don’t fail.”

Lavasseur said he plans to finish his assignment in the Southwest U.S. in early 2022, and will then head back to Washougal — “the amazing community” he has embraced since moving from Puerto Rico in 2018 with his wife and children.

“My wife is from Oregon, and when we started looking at properties, we knew we wanted a large amount of property and our own animals,” Lavasseur said. “We have a little farm up past the race track. We never thought we’d own a farm, but … we’re having such a blast. This is the most welcoming community. Everywhere we go, we meet the most amazing, amazing people.”