Las Vegas is thirsty

Rachel Alexander

Las Vegas is a city rife with contradictions. Outside the glamor and glitz of the Strip, you find neighborhoods of discount grocery stores and a skyline of billboards advertising bankruptcy lawyers. Golf courses and green lawns abound, seemingly incompatible with the desert surrounding the city. Vegas is a life-size monument to American excess, but it also forces environmentalists to consider an uncomfortable reality. In a world of too many people, with millions living in hurricane risk areas and on floodplains, could Las Vegas be the best way to shelter people in the middle of the Mojave?

The water crisis facing the city illustrates the seeming unsustainability of having a city in the desert: as the fastest-growing city in the country, Vegas needs more water.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is looking at two solutions to this problem. The first is to try to get a larger share of the water coming out of the Colorado River, which is divided amongst the seven states surrounding it. According to the Colorado River Compact, an agreement reached in 1922, Nevada is entitled to 300,000 acre-feet of water per year, enough to feed about 600,000 homes and just 4 percent of the total. At the time the agreement was made, Los Angeles was growing quickly and Las Vegas was barely a dot on the map. Consequently, many Nevadans feel they should be entitled to a larger share now. Patricia Mulroy, the SNWA manager, has said she is prepared to go to court with other states over this issue.

The second solution proposed by the SNWA is far more controversial within the state. The SNWA wants to pump groundwater from Snake and Spring Valley in rural Nevada, then pump the water to Vegas via a 235-mile pipeline.

After visiting the people in the valley who would be affected, it was easy to sympathize with their anger. Many likened it to Los Angeles’ technically legal but underhanded acquisition of water rights in the Owens Valley in 1913. After L.A.’s pipeline diverted most of the streams from the valley, Owens Lake went completely dry and large clouds of toxic dusts became regular occurrences. Migratory bird habitats dried up, and environmentalists in the West vowed never to let another growing desert city take water from a rural area.

Now, toxic dust clouds loom on the horizon for Spring Valley: the area downwind of the Nevada Test Site which contains volcanic soils with potent carcinogens. Not much is known about the environmental impacts of pumping the groundwater: even the SNWA has said that the best hydrology is just educated guessing.

Rural Nevadans and passionate environmentalists are understandably concerned about the pipeline, and I would gladly stand with them in opposition. There are better ways to get water for Vegas, and much more could be done to conserve what little water there is. However, it is too easy to come away from the conflict with the observation that we shouldn’t build cities in the middle of deserts. This is certainly true, and if we could start our settlement of the West from scratch, I would gladly leave the Mojave and Sonoran unpopulated. But to “solve” Vegas’s water problem by saying it shouldn’t be there at all is a bit like solving world hunger by killing three billion people. As a visitor or tourist, it is all too easy to see the neon lights from afar and forget that real people, many of whom are far from wealthy, live and work in Las Vegas. They are not going to go away. They are going to need water to drink.

As climate change warms the American West, snowpack levels will fall, and water stored in reservoirs on the Colorado will evaporate faster. Las Vegas is likely to keep growing. The water issue is not going to go away, and it will not be solved easily. The city has made efforts to conserve water, including funding a program to pay people to get rid of grass. Conservation is an essential first step, one which could make a large dent in water use. But eventually, Nevada will face difficult choices. As environmentalists, we need to remember the reality of the city when choosing among them.