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Can Sin City survive without the gift of free water?
With the famous slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority promises sin—without the wages of sin. Not to be outdone, the local water authority reaches out to newcomers with the offer of cheap and abundant water in the middle of a scorching desert.
Or, rather, it did until recently. The city fathers of Las Vegas are just beginning to appreciate the truth of one of Ben Franklin’s maxims—“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
Cheap and abundant water was the magic fuel that powered the city’s growth for more than half a century. It fed lawns, filled pools, jetted out of fountains, and led to the creation of scores of golf courses (some 60 in all) that dotted around a metropolitan area of close to 2 million people.
But now the magic’s gone. There is no free water for future growth.
Water in Las Vegas is still cheap, by the standards of most cities. But it is no longer abundant. At the current price, which is based on historic cost and does not reflect the hard fact of present and impending scarcity, there is just enough water to accommodate the needs of existing residents. That is to say, water is subject to strict rationing. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and its sister organization—the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD)—have adopted a wide range of restrictions to micromanage and limit water usage, including one that bans restaurants from serving unsolicited tap water and another that prohibits the planting of grass at commercial properties and new residential front yards. LVVWD maintains its own “water police” who patrol the city looking for sprinklers running at prohibited times and other cases of wasteful or illegal water use.
If water is to become abundant again—and that is the great overriding objective of the water authority, which is engaged in a controversial campaign to tap into the small sea of Ice Age water that lies beneath the Great Basin in northern Nevada and western Utah—it will have to be brought in from the outside and it won’t be cheap. Still worse, according to many critics, SNWA’s multi-billion dollar plan to pump ground water from the Great Basin and send it via a 285-mile pipeline to Las Vegas would result in an environmental catastrophe.
How did Las Vegas go from abundance to scarcity? What is the best solution in balancing the interests of the environment against the city’s desire for continuing economic growth and prosperity?
In addressing such questions, one must begin by acknowledging that this is a story wound up in the history and continuing evolution of the American southwest.
IF THE FEDERAL government did anything of lasting consequence during the Great Depression, it was the construction of the Hoover Dam and a host of ancillary facilities, including the aqueduct downstream from the dam that supplies water to almost all cities in the greater Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego areas. Thanks to these Depression-era projects, the Colorado River supplies one out of every 12 Americans with drinking water, and it irrigates fields that produce about 15 percent of the nation’s crops.
Modern-day Las Vegas may be described as an unintended consequence of the building of the great dam. Originally, it was thought that Mormon farmers in the vicinity of today’s city would use a tiny portion of the river’s flow (less than 2 percent) to create a smaller version of California’s Imperial Valley.
That is not what happened. Instead, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began construction of the dam in 1931, the city filled with a rowdy army of construction workers. In her telling of the story in a five-part series called “Quenching Las Vegas’ Thirst,” Emily Green of the Las Vegas Sun wrote:
[The workers’] needs could be largely summed up in a telephone book under B: boarding houses, brothels and bars. Moreover, that same year, Nevada legalized gambling. Las Vegas added a C to its key services: casinos.
In short, the mob didn’t invent Las Vegas. The Bureau of Reclamation did.
No one expected the small number of people living in and around Las Vegas at the time to pick up any portion of the capital cost of building the dam, 34 miles to the south, which was completed in 1936. Like other big Depression-era projects, it was launched and paid for by the federal government.