Las Vegas may run out of water in 20 years
The city of Las Vegas wants to pump up to 300bn litres of water a year out of the Nevada desert landscape and transport it 300 miles south to the thirsty metropolis of casinos and golf courses.
Supporters say the $7bn (£4.4bn) project is a matter of life-or-death for Las Vegas, which, some projections suggest, could run out of drinking water in 20 years. Opponents of the pipeline say draining the desert of groundwater would destroy the livelihoods of the cattle ranchers, Native American tribes, and Mormon enterprises that call this expanse home, and reduce a vast swath of the state to a dust bowl.
“It will devastate this part of the state,” said Dean Baker, a lean man well into his 70s. He and his three sons, now in their 40s, have grazing rights to 160,000 hectares of land straddling the Utah-Nevada state line.
In its current incarnation, the network of pipelines and pumping stations striking out from Las Vegas to four valleys in eastern Nevada would terminate near the Bakers’ property. After 50 years on the land, Baker is convinced the scheme would dry up the natural springs that feed his cattle herd and water his alfalfa and hay fields. Federal government scientists have made similar predictions.
Vegas would get its water, Baker said, but it would destroy the ranches that supply its food. “I think it will hurt Las Vegas. I think it will hurt the whole state of Nevada, and if it’s ever done – 50 years from now, 100 years from now – there will be a huge amount of people saying: ‘What on earth? How did it happen? How could they have done something that stupid?’”
Apart from the people who lived out here, few were fully aware of how much water lay beneath the desert until the late 1970s, when engineers siting those cold war nuclear missile silos drilled into sizeable underground reserves.
In Las Vegas, where the population had been doubling every decade until the most recent recession, planners had an idea: what if there were a way of pumping the water towards the state’s population centre and economic engine?
Nevada, which for years has been drawing more water from its Lake Mead reservoir than has been flowing in, could be at serious risk of going dry in 20 years, said Pat Mulroy, the manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which is pursuing the pipeline project.
Now Mulroy, who has headed the water authority for most of that time, may be entering the final stretch, with the state’s water engineer due to rule this month on where she can mine for water.
Native American tribes, such as the Goshute, say the project would destroy their ancestral lands. The Mormon church says the project would jeopardise its large-scale beef operations, which supply the church’s food banks.
Environmental groups say Las Vegas has not done enough to conserve water, or to explore other solutions – such as constructing a desalination plant, as other water-strapped cities have done.
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