Saturday, 30 August 2008


Las Vegas was first settled for its springs, springs that made it an oasis in the desert. Although those springs have decades since run dry, water is still the most import resource to Las Vegas and the dry Southwest.

And by all indications the region is only going to get dryer. Scientists predict devastating effects from global warming, conservationists are calling for a halt to growth in Southern Nevada as a way to preserve supplies and water managers are looking to ever more creative ways to reduce reliance on the overburdened Colorado River. A Colorado River reservoir at Lake Mead is the source of 90 percent of the valley's water supply. Water levels there have fallen steadily for nearly a decade.

Now Southern Nevada water managers say they can no longer rely on the river so heavily, and must construct a massive pipeline to draw water stored underground for centuries in rural Nevada to Las Vegas. They say no amount of conservation can replace the need for this backup source of drinking water.

Opponents say the effects of the pumping would be devastating and that the plan would sacrifice a rural, ranching way of life in Eastern Nevada for casinos and tract home in the south.
But it's not only the lack of water that worries environmentalists and water managers alike. It's also water quality, the endangered species that life in Southern Nevada's rivers and streams and the recreation opportunities that make the region's national parks so popular.
Water is one of the most politically charged issues in Nevada today, and it's certainly one of the most important.

Las Vegas lies at the intersection of three deserts. To the west is the Mojave, to the south the Sonoran and to the north the Great Basin.

The Sonoran Desert marries California, Arizona and Mexico.

The Mojave is largely a Californian desert that spills into Southern Nevada.

Both are known as “hot” deserts, names that make more sense when it is 120 degrees in the summer than 10 below freezing on a winter night. Rains do come, but so rarely that the Sonoran’s saguaro cactuses and the Mojave’s Joshua trees have become international symbols of stoicism.

North of Las Vegas, the Great Basin Desert begins. It too is largely dry, but this is a “cold desert.” Its altitudes are higher, its winters longer and colder, and its valleys are fed largely by snowmelt. The Great Basin Desert covers most of Nevada and relaxes eastward across the Utah border to claim the oldest stretches of Mormon country.

As elevations steadily rise in the northward climb, the yuccas of the hot desert give way to a luminous green shrub called greasewood. The sheer brightness of its foliage screams a secret. Where there is greasewood, there is water.

There was ground water once in Las Vegas, but growth unmatched since the gold rush has consumed it. Today Las Vegas relies on water from the Colorado River, stored in the country’s largest reservoir only 30 miles outside the city.

But in the world of water, proximity to water doesn’t count. Historic claims do.

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