“Without Lake Mead, there wouldn’t be Las Vegas” — so are we eventually going to lose Las Vegas?

The above clip is from CBS Evening News last night; it deals with drought levels in the Western U.S., specifically in Lake Mead, which is the primary water source for about 20 million people in southern Nevada and southern California. They currently use two main intake pipes and, because of declining water levels — Lake Mead has lost about 4 trillion (with a t) gallons since 2000 — one of the intake pipes is about to be above water (within about 16-24 months). They’re rushing to install a third intake pipe, at the cost of about $817 million, mostly to keep water flowing in those areas. Lake Mead is the primary source of water for Las Vegas, obviously one of America’s most notable trade show/debauched weekend destinations. The situation isn’t great:

“We have one of the most dynamic economies of the world (throughout the Colorado River Basin) threatened by an ongoing drought that in its own way is every bit as serious as a Hurricane Katrina or a Superstorm Sandy. But it’s a situation that evolves over years and decades, not hours and days,” said John Entsminger, who takes over as head of the district when 20-year General Manager Pat Mulroy retires on Feb. 6.

It should be noted here that Las Vegas is actually a success story when it comes to water, despite having a reputation for excess and waste in other ways. In the last decade, it’s added about 400K residents but actually dropped water consumption by 33 percent; the Vegas strip reuses about 93 percent of its water. The city used to have a program called “Cash for Grass” — basically, tear up your lawn (which needs water) and get some money from the government — but the DEA, uh, didn’t like the name, so ’twas changed.

The broader issue here is Colorado River drought; in the past 14 years, it’s undergone a situation that basically doesn’t have a parallel in the 1,250 years before that. Here’s the doomsday scenario on Mead/Colorado River:

“If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” said John Entsminger, the senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The overall issue is that the Colorado and its associated basins are the only water sources serving the American Southwest, which is essentially the fastest-growing region in America over the past 20-30 years. It’s a basic supply/demand equation at a certain point.

So, if the weather patterns continue to dry up the area, what can be done, broadly?

The third intake valve is a good start — it’s deeper than the current ones and has been called “the most important construction project in the Southwest right now” — and another idea, considered controversial, is to basically fill up Lake Mead before impounding/storing water in nearby Lake Powell, which is the current practice. The problem is that it would affect relationships with California and Arizona water-wise, and one belief on the current Colorado River situation is that it’s only been managed effectively by solid cooperation between the different Southwestern states. Other solutions: switch to farming foods that require less water, full-scale embrace of aquaponics, treating industrial/agricultural wastewater, purchasing water from irrigators, desalination plants, and more.

Part of the problem here, of course, is that America has a tremendous track record of responding to things in the most immediate sense, but a less-than-stellar track record of responding to things that might be a bigger issue 10-20 years out (see: approaches to education, inequality). When someone in Arizona or Las Vegas flips their kitchen tap right now, water flows, and flows beautifully. So it’s not really a problem, you know? But it is. It’s basically Sandy, just a long-form Sandy. California, as a whole, may have just hit its driest point in 500 years. That’s, like, there’s no way to explain that positively. I’m sitting in Minneapolis right now, and it’s -6 degrees, and my water is fine — but in no way should that be viewed as evidence that global warming isn’t happening, things aren’t shifting, etc.

I Googled “innovative drought solutions,” and got this link from Texas. Rainwater harvesting, desalination, reuse. All makes sense. I think ultimately the water will be managed — perhaps re-treating ocean water or waste water — but the way we farm, and the crops we focus on, are going to shift. That can be OK — some crops that require less water are actually pretty good for you, and fairly tasty — but broadly, you also need to think about livestock, who need water to survive (before slaughter). That’s a large-level issue too.

I sometimes wish big companies cared as much about this type of stuff as they do about putting a really cool product in front of you — especially companies in the Southwest who will eventually need water to keep doing business.

Ted Bauer