Pouring Water into the Desert

Las Vegas and neighboring Henderson are two of the fastest growing cities in the country. The 2000 census indicated more than a 60% population expansion in Las Vegas and Henderson in the last 10 plus years. This phenomenal growth rate gives rise to the question: How can this water-poor state sustain that amount of growth? Especially now, as Western States face the sixth year of drought, possibly the worst drought in 500 years.

Southern Nevada's phenomenal growth has gone unchecked for too many years, in part because Nevada is one of the few states lacking a growth management plan or a state agency to deal with planning. But the state let Southern Nevada grow and prosper and happily took the money generated by taxes. And, the federal government? It is just adding to the problem. The Bureau of Land Management just keeps selling off land for development.

Nevada's new residents include older Americans from all over the country retiring to a place once named as one of the nation's most affordable places to retire. They include younger families lured to the state by both cheap housing and lots of jobs. And every year, more and more tourists come to vacation attracted to a place like no other – fabled Las Vegas!

Until recently, little attention was given to the fact the new residents brought with them values and lifestyles often at variance with a desert setting, including a penchant for lush green lawns. It's apparent that outdoor irrigation has become a major culprit in the high water use in Nevada.

So a number of factors are contributing to a major statewide water crisis – a mushrooming population in the South, failure to conserve a scarce resource (until recently), and an unprecedented drought not predicted to end soon.

A number of solutions, both good and bad, are under proposal. Factions have formed. Emotions run high! This situation has all the makings of a civil war – the rurals against the urban residents – north against south. In one instance, a proposed water pipeline for bringing rural water to southern Nevada has caused concerns in the environmental community. Environmentalists assert that draining groundwater basins and aquifers will ravage Nevada's rural lifestyle, its wilderness areas and its wildlife population. They look at a growth pattern that seems unstoppable and worry that the rural areas will be drained dry to feed the thirsty monster called Las Vegas.

On the other side are those who insist that this will not last, and that stopping Southern Nevada's growth would deal a devastating blow to the Las Vegas economy, and to the state of Nevada, as well. What would happen if a water moratorium was established and the now booming construction industry had to start laying off workers?

Yet another threat looms – water privatization. In the last session of our state legislature a water profiteer, Vidler, attempted to get legislation passed that would have allowed the company to license underground water in Nevada. And, it almost worked. But, at the last, cooler heads prevailed and the environmental lobby rallied support and stopped the "kidnapping" attempt. In the end, only one county fell to Vidler.

But victories like these are short-lived. Fighting against privateers requires vigilance. Nationally and internationally, these private water pirates are on the prowl to steal the resource Fortune Magazine calls the "oil of the 21st century." Vidler's strategy is clearly stated on its Website. In the West, they plan to "locate, aggregate, develop and convert water rights from highly fragmented agricultural markets to emerging municipal and industrial uses. The assertion I find most alarming is their intent "...to become a leading private water resource asset company in the western United States."

Critical as our Nevada water crisis is, and in spite of the many contributing factors, there are both short-term and long-term strategies we can employ. We know we must be vigilant in preserving our resources. We understand that we must do a better job in demanding and implementing aggressive water conservation policies. We must look for innovative solutions. Can desalination work? Or another process yet to be invented? What we cannot do is fight amongst ourselves. We must work together within Nevada for the benefit of all Nevadans. And it's just as important that we join together with other Western states to solve the immediate water crisis. In the future, we must continue working together to pursue long-term solutions for adequate water for all Westerners. Equally important, we must all join forces to block the very real threat of a takeover of our essential needs by profiteers.

Once, long ago some other Nevadans may have faced just such a drought as we do in modern times. Fifty miles northeast of Las Vegas lies Moapa Valley, populated continuously from 8000 B.C. until approximately 1100 A.D. No one knows what happened to the last inhabitants living there, the Anasazi people. Perhaps they were decimated by disease. But there's evidence to support the theory that a long drought finally drove them out. If we bicker and fail to use all our knowledge and skills to provide for our current and future water needs, then we, too, will find ourselves in an uninhabitable environment. The choice is ours.

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