Drought by Drought West

Whenever I read about yet another new development being constructed in the Las Vegas valley, I have to suppress the urge to yell and scream and pull my hair, “and where are you going to get water from in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?!”

The Vegas valley gets its potable water from Lake Mead, a man-made creation resulting from the damming of the Colorado river. Lake Mead is presently nearly 200 feet below capacity. It hasn’t been this low since the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1936. Currently, another intake “straw” is being constructed at Lake Mead to reach water at lower depths. This will help transport more water to the region after lake levels have fallen dangerously low but it’s only a bandaid. Without significant, measurable and prolonged rainfall, the drought will worsen and the water in Lake Mead will continue to be consumed by the citizens and tourists of Vegas as it slowly evaporates in the blazing Mojave sun.

Parched clay at Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora.
Parched clay at Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora.

Climate change deniers clamber on to their pedestals and shout that no one knows what the future will be. That we should continue development unabated because everything may change tomorrow. Here’s the problem with that stance…

1. The Facts – The irrefutable scientific data amassed that climate change is happening full force and is contributing to drought conditions in the west.

2. The History – The sophisticated, industrial civilization that was the Anasazi culture of the Southwest was thriving when it suddenly collapsed approximately 1000 years ago. It is generally believed that the Anasazi people were forced to disperse to wetter climes as a result of the Great Drought which brought about repeated crop failures and left their irrigation canals dry.

The western drought has been on-going for nearly a decade. Our society has had time to steel itself and prepare to avert catastrophe. And yet the Vegas region is presently seeing brand new development. Proof that the dollar will win out over facts, history and logic every time.

Islands that were once covered with water stand exposed at Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora
Islands that were once largely covered with water stand exposed at Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora

In his pointed and critical article featured in Slate last summer, meteorologist Eric Holthaus doesn’t hold back in accusing Vegas of sticking its head in the parched sand. From the article:

“Tim Barnett, a scientist at UC-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has calculated a 50/50 chance that Lake Mead will reach an unusable state—so-called “dead pool” levels—by 2036, barring aggressive cutbacks in water use.”

2036! That’s 21 years from now that the water in Lake Mead could be in an unusable state! And yet hundreds of new homes and businesses are being constructed in the Vegas valley! Facepalm!

On the left, the Boulder Basin region of Lake Mead in 2012. On the right, the same area in 2015.
On the left, the Boulder Basin region of Lake Mead in 2012. On the right, the same area in 2015. Photos by A. La Canfora.

If any one person has helped to shape this callous, indifferent attitude towards our water crisis, it’s the former general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, Pat Mulroy. In a recent interview given to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, Mulroy smugly, dismissively “answers” questions put forth to her about the challenges ahead for Vegas. I quote Mulroy; “On paper, we will take a shortage, but in real terms, we won’t be affected by it.”

If by “won’t be affected by it” she means that residents will eventually be forced to uproot and flee to moister environs once their water bill skyrockets to dizzying heights due to the shortage, then yes, we won’t be affected by it.

Where once existed a thriving marina, now only the stones remain. Lake Mead, 2014. Photo by A. La Canfora
Where once existed a thriving marina, now only the stones remain. Lake Mead, 2014. Photo by A. La Canfora

The Sun goes on to ask, “Is there a point where the resources we have can’t sustain the West’s growth?”

Mulroy: “This isn’t a western growth issue. It’s a global growth issue. It’s raw human numbers. So what do you do? Put a moat around Las Vegas and not let anybody cross it? Come on, let’s get real. Do we get to decide who gets to have children and who doesn’t? These become ridiculous questions”

Mulroy’s evasiveness and defensiveness in no way either answers this important question nor helps citizens of the region plan for their future.

Oh and there’s one other aspect of the drought that the Vegas media seems to be avoiding – the almost certain increased frequency of dust storms as the land becomes more arid. Scenes like this one in Arizona will happen with more regularity across the Southwest as the land gets drier and vegetation shrivels up, bringing about more respiratory and lung ailments and an overall lessening in the quality of life.

Dust storm, also known as a haboob, bearing down on Phoenix, AZ. 2o13.

“But Angel, who are you to lecture on this topic? Aren’t you just a song/poetry/art/photo slinger?” That and I’m also a woman who was on the Dean’s List at George Mason University as an anthropology major with a concentration on Southwestern culture. And a person who has held a keen interest in climate/meteorology for decades and has followed the rise of climate change closely, that’s all.

I write this as I sit at my dining room table, in my Henderson, Nevada home on the outskirts of Vegas, occasionally sipping from a glass full of precious Lake Mead. This slow moving catastrophe is bearing down on all of us residents of the Southwest. The unstoppable engine is churning and our cities and inhabitants stand to go the way of the Anasazi. Now is the time to take action, to make our plans while our heads are still well above the drying sand.

Rainbow over Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora
Rainbow over Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora

Further reading – Here’s a study from the Journal of Climate that puts the chances of a multi-decade megadrought in the west at over 50%

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4 thoughts on “Drought by Drought West

  1. I’m interested in your perspective on the drought. We’re working on a documentary about the current drought, it’s impact on agriculture, communities, and global food supply. I’d love to interview you at some point, if you’re willing. We’ll be coming through Las Vegas later this year again. We were there a few weeks ago, and actually interviewed Pat Mulroy. let me know if you’re interested. Please visit our web site, http://www.Thirstylandmovie.com for more info about the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very well written article, and you are spot on. We are in a world of trouble. Mulroy is being honest, and I can understand how she would have difficulty putting into words, her huge amount of knowledge on the subject. She didn’t do anything bad, there are powers above her control that push for further development in Vegas, trust me. Mulroy is correct in saying “It’s a global growth issue. It’s raw human numbers. So what do you do? Put a moat around Las Vegas and not let anybody cross it?” Issue at hand is global, we are in deep doo doo. Sadly and unfortunately, no one can just stop construction, and this crap is going to continue, until faucets are simply shut off through out massive regions. When people no longer want to live in an area, and property values are plummeting, then all construction stops. Simple. People in generally, are just no educated on these subjects. And although we all like to think that our politicians are doing things to help us, it just doesn’t work that way.

    Other poor countries will not fend as well as the western US. At least the majority of households in the Southwest have vehicles, meaning, people can migrate, get the heck out, escape the heat and lack of water that’s about to hit them. Imagine the push on RE values in areas that are rich with water? Vegas, 75 years from now, can possibly look like a ghost town, with highways rebuilt to go “around” the old city, which might only be inhabited by only a few trouble makers. More than likely, will be some sort of military outpost for training exercises and that sort of thing. A little like Mad Max, right world in the future! LOL…

    Thank you so much for writing about this extremely important man made climate change that is the worse slow moving disaster in history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Denise. Since I wrote this post, I’ve come to have a change-of-heart regarding Pat Mulroy. This was spurred by a biographical piece I read about her, that made me realize exactly what you pointed out: that everything wasn’t up to her. It’s a political process and she could only do and say so much. To be a woman working in Vegas dealing with the powers-that-be, she had to be tough and thick-skinned and I’ve developed an admiration for her. I agree with you that one day, someday, Vegas will – could – become a Mad Maxian wasteland. By that time, I plan to be enjoying living my life out on my tropical beachfront home in Alaska!
      I plan to write a follow-up to this post soon, so stay tuned!

      Like

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