The title of first American city to be abandoned for lack of water will be awarded in the next decade or so, and it’s hard to decide whether to bet on Las Vegas or Phoenix. It could be a tie. Those among us who still like our stories to end with a moral are rooting for Vegas, whose demise would round out a lovely wages-of-sin, Sodom-and-Gomorrah kind of fable. Phoenix seems less blameworthy, but only if you think what’s about to happen is retribution for sin. If you lean more toward the inevitable-consequences-of-stupidity theory, then there’s not much to differentiate between Dumb Phoenix and Dumber Las Vegas. In Vegas, “the situation is as bad as you can imagine,” according to climate scientist Tim Barnett at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Vegas gets its water from Lake Mead, impounded by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Lake Mead is less than half half full, and is dropping fast, probably by another 20 feet this year. It is lower now than it ever has been since the lake was filled in 1938. Another 37 feet and the Las Vegas intake pipe will be sucking air. (All this was updated thoroughly last week in the London Telegraph. Why are the best stories about America’s environmental problems found in British newspapers?)
Not to worry, there’s another water intake for Las Vegas, 50 feet below the present one. Oh, good, two more years. Assuming drought conditions get no worse than they are now, and that is far from a safe assumption. Then what? Vegas has a plan. A boring machine the size of the Pentagon is chewing through solid rock at the rate of one inch a day to punch a line through to the very deepmost bottom of Lake Meade. Another few years, if they make it in time. The country can’t find the money to fix its roads and bridges, but it found $817 million to keep Las Vegas in flushing water for a few more years.
Then what? According to Rob Mrowka, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, “As the water situation becomes more dire we are going to start having to talk about the removal of people (from Las Vegas).”
Who else gets half its water from the very same lake Mead on the very same Colorado River? Phoenix, Arizona, that’s who. A city that has been in drought conditions for ten years and is expected to remain so for another 20 or 30 years. (To say that Vegas is in a 14-year drought is redundant. It’s in a desert. Four inches of rain a year is normal.) Yet until two weeks ago, no one had told Phoenix, officially, that unless there are substantial (and unexpected) improvements in the flows of the Colorado River and the level of Lake Mead and Lake Powell farther upstream, deliveries of water to Phoenix are going to be curtailed.
Now the Central Arizona Project, which manages the lower Colorado watershed, has said exactly that. “We’re dealing with a very serious issue,” board member Sharon Megdal told the New York Times, “and people need to pay attention to it.”
In other words — Brace for Impact.