Iowa Public Television


Las Vegas Water Showdown

posted on July 25, 2008

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It would be difficult to find an issue that is more complex -- -- or more controversial for that matter -- -- than water in the American West.

In the past, an unquenchable thirst for water in California and Nevada led to massive projects, like the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Hoover Dam… both the largest engineering feats of their time.

Las Vegas is a microcosm of today's western water issues. Rising out of an arid desert, the town sometimes known as "Sin City," is home to nearly two million residents, and entertains about 40 million visitors annually. But without water from the Colorado River, Las Vegas, literally, would dry up.

Further upstream, Nevada ranchers also depend upon the Colorado for their livelihoods. And with supplies dwindling, the rhetoric is getting heated. As Andrew Batt discovered last winter, the problem of too many people depending upon too little water, is pitting ranchers against roulette.


The bright lights of Las Vegas are a shining example of 20th century capitalism and engineering. But even the most advanced water reuse methods can not avoid a sobering fact: Vegas is running out of water and some critics say the city's leaders are running out of options.

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority: "There is no large city that has successfully stopped its growth. It cannot be done. Go look at and count the cranes. You run into some real constitutional problems. Private land owners have the right to develop their land and we can't pick and choose. We can't say we'll service you but we won't service you. If we say there's no water, it's everybody."

Pat Mulroy is a 23-year veteran of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and has built a reputation as the region's water czar. Since 1991, Mulroy has assembled a coalition of water resources to support the rapidly-expanding city of Las Vegas. But only months after a 2000 Colorado River water agreement was signed, a massive drought rocked the desert community. The results have been devastating.

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority: "By 2009 the Secretary of Interior will begin clearing shortages to Arizona and Nevada. By 2010 we loose our upper intake and Hoover Dam stops generating electricity. By 2012/2013 we're now into the third round of cuts and life gets really ugly. 90% of our water comes from the Colorado River."

This is the new reality at nearby Hoover Dam. A white ring near the water's edge represents a 100-foot drop in Lake Mead's water table since 2000. The same "bathtub ring", as some local authorities call it, encircles the entire reservoir and underscores the seriousness of Vegas water issues. A recent study even suggests Lake Mead could run completely dry within twenty years.

Local authorities claim the solution to shortages is to construct a controversial, $2 billion water pipeline running more than 200 miles north of Las Vegas and right into the middle of Nevada cattle country.

Dean Baker, Baker, NV: "I think if the population of Las Vegas understood the costs, the impacts, and what was going to happen that it would come to a halt almost immediately."

Dean Baker is the most vocal voice of rural Nevada's opposition to a water pipeline. Baker's ranch, which straddles the Nevada-Utah border, is ground zero for a contentious debate over natural resources.

Dean Baker: "Water has always been the limiting factor out here. In everything we do, water is a top priority…it's essential."

Baker believes a 200-mile Vegas pipeline would sap nearby aquifers and dramatically lower the region's already shallow water table. The lifelong resident of Baker, Nevada showed Market to Market a series of his own water pumps throughout the area that have already lowered water levels.

Dean Baker: "Look at how dry this is with just shallow pumping. I lowered the water table with this equipment…imagine what an 84-inch pipeline could do."

Baker contends his central pivot irrigation would be critically affected if a pipeline was built.

Baker concedes underground aquifers run considerably deeper in certain sections of rural Nevada but warns that it would be nearly impossible to close the spigots once the Las Vegas pipeline is constructed - even if adverse conditions arise.

With his ranch tucked away in the shadow of a nearby mountain range, Baker insists the contrast of growers versus gamblers is a perfect example of western water wars. According to Baker, the sprawling city of Las Vegas long ago made the critical mistake of building a thirsty metropolis in the middle of an arid desert and questions whether his ranch should pay the price for poor planning.

Dean Baker: "I think that they should stop and just go back and look at the whole thing, decide what the goal of Las Vegas is, did they want it the most populated city or do they want it the city that produces the most revenue and entertainment from the gaming and the entertainment industry."

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority: "This isn't about growth. This is about a community that's over 2 million people loosing 90% of its water supply. This is the ability of Las Vegas to continue to exist as it exists today. It is irrelevant to me whether there is growth or there is not growth."

Instead of urban growth Mulroy questions the role of agricultural water use in the American Southwest.

Pat Mulroy: "What is civilization in the southwest going to be and are we going to start having a conversation about agriculture? How much agriculture should we be growing in the most arid area of the United States?"

But Mulroy's contention avoids the unique problems of Las Vegas. Seventeen of the 20 largest hotels in the United States sit along the famed Las Vegas Strip. Complete with lavish architecture and elaborate water features, the business sector seems to ignore the cold reality of water shortages.

But despite popular belief, the casinos actually reuse nearly all of their water through advanced purification and recycling technology. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, these massive hotels represent less than 3 percent of the entire water use in Las Vegas and contribute a majority of the community's tourism dollars and remain as the top revenue generator in the entire state.

Hydrologists blame the rapid urban expansion of Las Vegas and the demand for lavishly green golf courses. But the Southern Nevada Water Authority has taken measures to promote water conservation including: promoting the use of desert landscaping while issuing fines against homeowners for watering lawns, and charging high-water users like golf courses dearly.

Andrew Batt: "But at the rate Las Vegas is growing can you conserve yourself out of this problem?"

Pat Mulroy: "No community can, but the need for additional resources is managed through that. I mean, this entire time that we've continued to grow, we've not increased the amount of water we're using. I mean it's all been through conservation savings, but you're absolutely right. You reach a point where you've conserved and you've conserved and now you parch the supply. So the biggest fear I have is a continued deepening of this drought and not having the reserves from some source other than the Colorado River in order to meet the demand."

Pat Mulroy's opinions on growing demand and a water pipeline are key issues in rural Nevada. Baker, Nevada business owner Gary Perea views Las Vegas and the decisions of Mulroy as desperate measures by a distressed city.

Gary Parea, Baker, Nevada: "Well she's a very determined person but I think she's wrong. I think she has been blinded or is so desperate for water that she's seeing a mirage up here."

Parea, a former county commissioner, has seen rural versus urban conflicts first hand but clearly favors the opinions of farmers and ranchers like Dean Baker.

Gary Parea: "I don't understand a city of almost 3 million people in the middle of the desert in that kind of climate and they have said over and over again that they have to be able to grow to pay for yesterday's growth. That is how they're thinking and at the point when they stop growing it's time for them to start paying their bills."

A final decision on the $2 billion water pipeline is now in the hands of a state water engineer as Las Vegas business leaders hope to begin pumping by 2015. But as critics call for alternative plans such as desalination plants on the west coast or increased conservation, the mood in Las Vegas is defiantly clear.

Andrew Batt: "Is there any chance that the pipeline wouldn't be built?"

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority: "It will be built. It has to be built unless you're willing to pipe water in from Iowa. Unless it comes from the Midwest and it comes from somewhere else of a long distance much longer than 200 miles. In the foreseeable future this water has to come from within the state of Nevada. There are no other options."

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture Nevada news rural urban water