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Las Vegas: Mirage in the Mojave

February 05, 2008
by Emily Underwood

Water, water, water...There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock. Of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. Edward Abbey

Las Vegas is in one of the driest valleys of the driest state in the U.S. From the view of a satellite, the wrinkled topography surrounding the city is the color of tanned hide, with only rough patches of green that spackle the mountains, and the dark blue fissure of the Colorado River on the Nevada/Arizona border.

Artesian springs once sustained pioneers as they crossed the harsh Mojave desert, giving Las Vegas its Spanish name, The Meadows. But in 1905, Las Vegas mechanically tapped the aquifer, interrupting the springs' natural flow. They soon dried up, and the meadows they supported are now gone.

Las Vegas's population ballooned as military industry took off and big-time resorts began to boom. By the 1940's, the city had depleted the aquifer to the point that Las Vegas could not continue to grow without seeking water elsewhere. Nevada had gained an annual allotment of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from the 1922 Colorado River Compact and the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act. The expansion of the 1940s provided the money and the incentive to build a delivery system for transporting the water from Lake Mead to Las Vegas Valley. In the1980s and 90s, the city finally managed to create a system that could transport the full allotment.

Today, Las Vegas Valley relies on the Colorado to survive; more than 90% of its annual water supply comes from Lake Mead reservoir. And survive it has, with the tenacity and opportunism of any spiny desert creature. With 70,000 newcomers per year, Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in America

Pat Mulroy, Nevada's "Water Czar" and manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), has enabled this expansion. She has nearly doubled the amount of water that the SNWA can extract from Lake Mead with the clever use of return-flow credits, which allow the city to subtract the wastewater that it treats and returns to the reservoir from its yearly allotment.

Combined with conservation methods that also appear to increase water supply while simply enabling growth, Mulroy has created an illusion of plenty that keeps Las Vegas fountains flowing, golf courses green, and investors smiling.

The SNWA projects that, if current growth continues, Las Vegas Valley's annual water needs will rise from 500,000 acre-feet to 1,200,000 acre-feet by 2054. The graph in their 2006 report shows a line rising steadily away from the x/y axis toward infinity.

However, as of September 2007, drought had shrunk Lake Mead by 51%. For Mulroy, this was an unanticipated catastrophe. In order to decrease its reliance on the Colorado, SNWA developed a diverse portfolio of resources. Some of the water will be recovered from water banks, aquifers that are recharged artificially, rather than filling naturally with snowmelt. Nevada maintains an in-state water bank, as well as banking water in Arizona and California.

In the future, the SNWA hopes that Nevada will be able to exchange construction of seawater desalinization plants in ocean states for water rights, but the agency emphasizes that this is not a short-term possibility.

However, banking, trading, buying and reusing water will account for only about 66-79% of the anticipated demand. The remaining water, at least 21%, at most 34%, is slated to come from in-state resources. In August 2004, the SNWA submitted a proposal to extract up to 200,000 acre-feet of water per year from seven hydrographic basins in the Great Basin Aquifer System.

No one knows if the aquifer can sustain this flow, or if, once depleted, it will fail to recharge like the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest. Nevertheless, in April 2007, the Nevada State Engineer approved a segment of the plan that will allow a pipeline, stretching approximately 256 miles from White Pine County to Las Vegas, to pump 40,000 acre-feet per year from Spring Valley. After ten years of environmental monitoring, this amount may grow to 60,000 acre-feet per year. It will be the largest groundwater project of its kind ever built in the United States.

In November, a Jim Lehrer News Hour addressed water in the West. To a panel including rancher Dean Baker, community activist Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, University of Nevada faculty-member Ron Smith, and marketing CEO Billy Vassiliadis, Judy Woodruff posed the question, "Has growth been good or bad for Nevada?" The panelists had mixed responses. Sustainability, they all seemed to agree, is a worthy goal, but they had varying degrees of hope for attaining it.

The perspective of Dean Baker, a rancher in White Pine County where the pipeline will begin, is rooted in the limitations of desert life. While growth has benefited Nevada in many ways, he argued, "It's unsustainable and you just can't keep spreading over the desert, and raising one house after another, and putting water to it when there isn't any water."

He has seen the environmental effects of agricultural irrigation. With alarming frequency, but little predictability, tapping into groundwater causes springs to dry up, and leaves behind dusty, bare depressions in the ground. The SNWA project will pump far more water from far deeper aquifers, and Baker does not believe that the agency has correctly predicted how much water is available and what the environmental effects of pumping it will be. He fears that it will cause irrevocable damage to ranchland, farmland, and wilderness preserves of northeast Nevada and northwest Utah.

Billy Vassiliadis, head of the marketing firm R&R Partners and distinguished in 2004 by the New York Times as Las Vegas's adman, huckster and dealer extraordinaire, warned about stopping growth in Las Vegas. In response to Judy Woodruff's question, Vassiliadis replied, "I'm a realist. And the reality is that if growth stops, many, many bad things will happen to the economy of this state."

Indirectly, he referred to a study commissioned by Pat Mulroy and the SNWA that projects the economic effects of a sudden end to growth in Las Vegas's Clark County. (This sudden end of growth is what Pat Mulroy predicts will happen by 2015 if Las Vegas doesn't get the all the water it is asking for from White Pine and Lincoln counties.) The results, which some consider contrived to favor business interests, are nevertheless arresting: hundreds of thousands of unemployed and $200 billion lost in state tax collections over 14 years.

In light of such impending catastrophe, Vassiliadis argued,"The growth in this state--good, bad or otherwise--fuels state government, it fuels schools, it fuels transportation, it fuels health care. And right now maybe we're addicted to it, but the fact is it's a part of our life and something we have to come to grips with."

Ron Smith, vice president for research at the University of Nevada, and the executive director of the Urban Sustainability Initiative, fears that the people of Las Vegas have failed to come to grips with the issue on either side.

"I think there's a huge amount of people in the middle that are neither pro-growth or anti-growth. They are not cognizant at all of what the issues are. They are not concerned. They're newcomers. They've been here on the average in Las Vegas 13 years. We've got 5,000 people moving here a month at this point. The real issue is, do we have the political and social will to deal with sustainability? That is the issue."

Seen from space at night, Las Vegas is a lonely constellation on the North American continent. The eastern seaboard is lit up like an obsessive doodler's geometric Etch-A-Sketch. But the arid Southwest retains substantial areas of darkness--rural ranch and farmland, open space. In these expanses, less visible and less audible than the glowing frenzy of Las Vegas, live Nevadans of all species who do not emit enough light to catch a satellite's attention but still eke out a desert living.

The pipeline is a gamble that would cost Las Vegas billions of dollars should the project fall through. Pat Mulroy herself agrees that the hydrological studies that have been conducted are, "At best, an educated guess." But money, unlike water, is not a limited resource in Las Vegas. Should the project fail to deliver everything the agency promises, should the water table drop unexpectedly, for example, or the technical feat of constructing the pipeline be too difficult, Las Vegas's survival is not at stake. Its growth rate might slow, or even stop. Investors might, at least temporarily, retreat. But affluence gives Las Vegas a cactus-like resilience that is not available to the ranches and ecosystems of rural Nevada. For them, the water diverted to meet the needs of Las Vegas may prove to be their lifeblood.

In Dean Baker's experience, the popular will to find sustainable alternatives to building the pipeline does not exist. He has protested, publicized, and testified, appearing on countless radio and television programs, writing editorials and spending more time fighting for his cause than ranching. The SNWA project has moved forward unimpeded. Pat Mulroy calls conservation measures that Tucson and Albuquerque have used with great success, "politically impossible in Las Vegas." With his statement, " I'm a realist," Billy Vassiliadis dismisses the environmentalists, community activists, and rural interests who would challenge growth in Nevada.

Baker has attempted to distance himself from politics, "God help us if this is a party issue." But his predicament, and that of every other life and livelihood dependent on Nevada's water, is inescapably political. When Baker testified at a hearing for two environmental bills that would have slowed the SNWA project, he found that, behind closed doors, under heavy pressure from powerful business interests and the SNWA, the bills had been rejected before his arrival. More than ironically, perhaps tragically, his disappointment was described by the Reno Gazette Journal as, "A lesson in politics.

Most politicians, including Obama and Clinton, speak about Nevada's resource problems in vague terms of mediation: ensuring that growth continues while somehow still protecting rural and environmental interests. John Edwards, recently lost from the race, was the only candidate to emphasize the importance of conservation and sustainable growth over making everybody happy. But even he did not seem able, or willing, to risk describing specifically what sustainable growth in Nevada would look like.

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) calculates that if Las Vegas could reduce its daily per capita water consumption to the level that Tucson has achieved, the city could save 190,424 acre-feet of water every year. Contrast this with the controversial 40,000 acre-feet that will be taken annually from eastern Nevada if the pipeline goes forward as planned. It would require a transformation of aesthetics and expectations, but with that saved water, PLAN explains, the city could continue to grow without tapping into rural Nevada's groundwater.

PLAN's vision, of water served in restaurants only by request, and bed sheets changed only once every three days for long-term guests in hotels, is inspiring. However, by softening its message of conservation with the reassurance that the city could continue growing, PLAN still sidesteps the larger issue. If conservation only fuels more growth, more growth will inevitably lead to a greater demand for water.

As the New Urban West develops, Western water may, for a time, continue to follow the same old physics-defying axiom, "running uphill toward money." This is what scholar Hal Roth contends, insisting that no Western city has ever been truly inhibited by lack of water, only by the lack of funds.

However, climate scientists expect severe, global warming-related drying trends to further dessicate the West in coming decades (see the February 2008 issue of National Geographic for a sobering article on this subject). In the case of Las Vegas, it may be science, rather than history, that proves predictive of the future of the New Urban West.

One thing is clear: by framing growth in Nevada as all-or-nothing, New Urban West or economic collapse, community leaders like Billy Vassiliadis and Pat Mulroy offer nothing new. Nor do they speak for Las Vegans themselves. In 2004, halfway through the current drought, a poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 75 percent of the residents in Clark County were willing to limit construction until the drought lifted.

By insisting that maintaining the momentum of Las Vegas's growth is the only viable alternative, Vassiliadis and Mulroy jeopardize not only the interests of those who currently must make a living in Nevada, but also those who will have to live there in the future. All sides of the debate pay lip service to the necessity of striking some kind of balance between rural and urban interests, desert and city, environment and economics. But so long as the discussion is restricted by a myopic realism that merely, inadequately, cynically, describes the status quo, the word balance will remain meaningless, or worse, euphemistic.

Choose your verb: Las Vegas is limited/constrained/supported/made ridiculous/inspired by the desert. The relationship between the Mirage and the Mojave will have to be redefined in the next decades. It will be up to Nevadan voters to do the redefining.

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