Nevada’s prosperity inextricably linked to Sin City

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Las Vegas “owes nothing to its surroundings,” wrote Hal Rothman in his history of Las Vegas, “Neon Metropolis.”
As the city has grown, its economy has propped up much of the state: Thanks to Las Vegas, two-thirds of Nevada’s counties receive more revenue from state revenue-sharing plans than they actually generate themselves.
Rothman, like most Vegas boosters, is unconcerned about a waterless future.
“No American city has ever ceased to grow because of a lack of water,” he wrote. “And it’s unlikely that Las Vegas will be the first. The only genuinely determining factor in acquiring water is cost. (And money) is no problem in Las Vegas.”
Judging from the proposed solutions to the looming crisis on the Colorado River, money is indeed no object. But money can’t buy everything, and it seems possible that Las Vegas might literally run out of water to support its growth.

Water stretching strategies

In an extensive and detailed report, the Southern Nevada Water Authority discussed how it intends to supply water to the city during the next several decades. The plan calls for recycling 100 percent of the city’s wastewater, continuing the city’s draconian water conservation measures, banking surplus Colorado River water, and developing new groundwater and surface water sources.
The scenarios outlined in the report are all possible, but taken individually seem unlikely to produce the yields that SNWA is apparently counting on.
For example, Las Vegas plans to divert up to 80,000 acre-feet annually from the Virgin River Basin, taking water that is currently used to irrigate 20,000 acres.
But there is no formal agreement between Nevada, Arizona and Utah dividing the waters of the Virgin River, which flows through all three states before emptying into Lake Mead. And, as a lower elevation watershed in the southern Rockies, the Virgin Basin may be vulnerable to the predicted double whammy of higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.
The report also “reflects use of 125,000 acre feet of in-state groundwater” from a proposed project in eastern Nevada.
The $3 billion groundwater-pumping project is expected to deliver as much as 160,000 acre-feet (52 billion gallons) to the city annually. The wells will not be nearby; Las Vegas proposes to build a four-hundred mile pipeline from eastern Nevada’s Basin and Range country.
Underlying as much as 100,000 square miles of this remote land is a vast aquifer, one which might be able to produce enough water to slake the glittering city’s expensive thirst for many years to come.
But the project has run into opposition from residents of eastern Nevada, who see it as an environmentally disastrous rip-off. It will, they claim, drain natural lakes as the water table drops, turn rural lands into dustbowls, and destroy the habitat of endangered and threatened plant and animal species.
However, in April, the Nevada state engineer gave limited approval to the project.
Under the terms of the decision, Las Vegas can only pump 40,000 acre-feet annually from the basin for 10 years. If the pumping doesn’t impair surface flows, the city can continue to draw water from the aquifer, and even increase to 60,000 acre-feet. How such impairment will be determined is uncertain.
In any case, the pared-down project will not be operational until 2014.