Feds Approve Las Vegas Water Grab

The Fountains at Bellagio Casino, one reason Las Vegas is running out of water. Yes, we know they have their own well, but the 5-10 million gallons they use every day could significantly slow down the depletion of Lake Mead. (Photo by sheilaellen/Flickr)

Dying cities, like dying people, reveal their characters near the end. Some go out with dignity, others grasp wildly at any scheme to avoid their fate, no matter at what harm to others. Case in point: Las Vegas, a clutch of casinos, bars and brothels built in the worst place you could build a city, in order to cater to the worst urges of human nature. Now this synthetic oasis in the desert is running out of water, and proposes a solution consistent with its traditional ethics: we’ll just take somebody else’s water.

The problem is terminal. Vegas gets almost all of its water from Lake Mead, which was created from the Colorado River by the Hoover Dam. For a decade or so, Vegas has taken out more water than the Colorado puts in. Every year Vegas wants more, every year the flow of the Colorado is less. Lake Mead is drying up.

(Remember the Daily Impact’s First Law of Consumption: if you only have so much stuff, and you use up a whole bunch of stuff every day, pretty soon you won’t have any more stuff. Like the law of gravity, this applies to pretty much everything.)

Vegas’s need for water is urgent not just because it has to have something to mix with bourbon, and to flush with, but because it must maintain attractions such as the Fountains (and casino) of Bellagio: an 8.5-acre artificial lake containing 22 million gallons of water over which spectacular light-and-water-fountain shows take place every 15 minutes every evening. Each show uses 250,000 gallons of water.

Vegas’s first solution for the problem of the disappearing Lake Meade was to start digging an unbelievably expensive new channel through solid bedrock in order to tap Lake Mead at a lower level. The way it’s going, with protracted drought shriveling the river ever faster, the lake level may well drop below the new intake before it opens.

Plan B, just approved by the federal Bureau of Land Management last week, involves spending 15 billion-with-a-B dollars on a pipeline 8 feet in diameter and 300 miles long to suck 27 billion-with-a-B gallons of water a year from under four rural Nevada valleys.  This makes sense to the high rollers and their minions because a) hey, we need it, awright? b) in Vegas, $15 billion is chump change, and c) nobody lives out there anyways.

Nobody but cattle ranchers, including several large operations owned by the Mormon Church. And Native Americans, living on the Goshute Reservation, possessors of one of those treaties with the United States government guaranteeing the protection of their ancestral lands and resources as long as the grass grows and the rivers run. Snag.

The Bureau of Land Management, before approving the project, estimated that it would drop the water table in the four affected valleys by about a hundred feet, drying up springs, killing off cattle and wildlife. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for its part, decreed that the project is in the best interests of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, a conclusion it reached without speaking to anyone on the reservation. That’s according to everyone who lives on the reservation. [Goshutes Pledge to Fight for Critical Water The Mainstreet Journal]

Environmentalists are mobilizing behind the proposition that this project cannot go forward because it would threaten the Great Basin springsnail with extinction. Now there’s a cause that no doubt will energize this fall’s presidential campaign.

But what about the proposition, common in civilized countries, that says you cannot take the things that I depend on for my life and livelihood simply because you are richer and bigger? Does anybody else miss that one?

Las Vegas should — and probably will — be the first major American city to be abandoned for lack of water. It will not be the last. We should not expect it to personify death with dignity, but the sight of the desert reclaiming the lake at Bellagio will certainly be instructive for the next generation.



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