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Dateline Las Vegas – Hell Has Frozen Over

Barry Nelson

Posted April 21, 2010

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If Hell is going to freeze over, you don’t expect it to happen in Las Vegas.  Here’s a story from the Las Vegas Sun reporting that something extraordinary happened when the Sonoran Institute released a report asserting that there is simply not enough water available to serve Las Vegas if it’s growth boom starts again and it “builds out” to its maximum boundaries.  Some local officials agreed. 

Las Vegas has been one of the nation’s fastest growing cities over the past decade.  In the wake of the nation’s financial crisis, it is now one of the communities most plagued by vacancies, foreclosures and under-water mortgages.  According to the Sonoran Institute, the rampant growth of the past decade is neither economically or environmentally sustainable.  So far, this is not a surprise – environmentalists don’t tend to embrace runaway growth.  But, here’s where the story gets interesting. Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani offered the following comments expressing openness to the report’s findings:

“I don’t think there’s much resistance to at least having the conversation about what’s the next step for the recovery of the valley,” she says. “Now we should be stepping back and asking, ‘Is that what we want? Is it a product that’s going to attract people here and keep people here?’ Now we can ask, ‘What do we want the valley to look like?’ We didn’t have time before because of the growth boom.”

This really is a new world.  Unbridled growth has been the next thing to a religion in Las Vegas.  Gambling on the future of the housing market was far more important to the local economy than the slots and poker tables on the Strip.  But this story suggests that a far more honest and frank discussion about water and growth may be beginning in one of the West’s iconic cities.  It’s about time. 

The financial crisis has forced many to confront painful truths that were long ignored.  This crisis is changing the way people think about the economic future of their communities.  This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. 

Likewise, the sober truths about water supplies in the West are starting to force some new conversations.  Today, we capture the entire Colorado River to serve seven states in the Southwest.  Climatologists predict that the river will provide less water in the future.  

Western water policy is littered with the hydraulic equivalent of sub-prime mortgages – CVP contracts that promise more water than the project can deliver.  A Colorado River Compact that divided up more water than the river provides.  Groundwater mining masquerading as sustainable yield.   These fictions perpetuate unsustainable policies and allow some to ignore the fact that we are hitting “peak water” in many parts of the West today and that climate change will shrink those supplies tomorrow. 

The outlook is not entirely bleak.  There are available water supply options – a package of solutions that we call the “virtual river”.  But some of these tools aren’t as promising for Las Vegas, which has little urban runoff to capture, and which already recycles its wastewater.   And, of course, unlike California, Las Vegas doesn’t have an ocean to tap into if it must.  Around the West, we need a far more serious effort to tap into these solutions, to move away from unworkable solutions, and to recognize honestly where Mother Nature has imposed real limits. 

Let’s hope this is one conversation that doesn’t stay in Vegas. 

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