If you've ever driven across Nevada, you might be tempted to shrug off fears about Las Vegas' plans to siphon the groundwater from under the east-central part of the state. From Highway 50, "the loneliest road," that basin-and-range country can seem pretty bleak, hardly worth stopping in, let alone saving.
In this issue's cover story, however, Madeleine Nash shows us what is truly at stake -- thriving aquatic communities nestled in little oases scattered across the emptiness.
Nash approaches the subject of the Las Vegas water play cautiously; it's too early to know for sure how the plan to pump billions of gallons of water out of the Great Basin's aquifers will affect the creatures that depend on them. Studies that are under way will give us more insight into the effects, but it could be a year or more before any conclusive results are available.
But do we really have time to wait?
This is a crucial time for the West and its water. The notion that we can meet the needs of growing populations simply by shuffling water around like playing cards is outdated. Most of the cards have been snatched up and some are disappearing altogether, thanks to climate change.
This is also a time of opportunity. The fastest-growing, thirstiest cities in the West are either in decline or stagnant. Accurate counts are elusive, but various indicators, such as school enrollment, show that the populations of both Las Vegas and Phoenix are either holding steady or dropping for the first time in decades.
With rampant sprawl no longer a given, we have time to pause and consider this: What if the Las Vegas pipeline -- and other projects like it -- are simply no longer necessary nor feasible, either financially or ecologically? What if we use this economically induced moment of contemplation to extract ourselves from the paradigm of growth for the sake of growth, and instead implement some sensible land- and water-use policies?
Unfortunately, we seem to remain stuck in the past. One of the biggest barriers to the Vegas project is Utah -- the aquifers in question inconveniently slip under Nevada's border into that state, and Utahns are understandably reluctant to lose their water to the fountains and hotel rooms of Sin City. Now, it turns out, Utah may surrender. Why? Because by doing so it would potentially remove Nevada's resistance to Utah's own water-sucking, in the form of a pipeline that would divert water from Lake Powell, pump it up a grade, and send it down to St. George, Utah (which, ironically, is just a stone's throw from Vegas).
Instead of valuing water as the non-renewable resource that it is, Utah and Nevada are still throwing it around like penny-chips in a casino. Like the compulsive gamblers who eat breakfast in windowless buffets along the Strip at 2 a.m., they remain completely oblivious to reality. The losers will be the tiny creatures in the springs of the Great Basin. And us.