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Las Vegas Accused of Engineering Massive Water Grab: Is This the Future of the West? [With Photo Slideshow]

Climate change is going to make life harder, water scarcer, and decisions about the future tougher.

Las Vegas exudes an all-you-can-eat mentality. People walk between casinos carrying giant cups of slushy liquor; advertisements blare from speakers on the streets pitching the best shows, best food and best deals; escalators take you across streets and directly into malls. You spend your time buying something, eating something, or watching something. Either way, it’s consume, consume, consume.

But this hunger is hard to satiate and it takes its toll, revealing the city’s central dichotomy — it is a destination of both the high-brow and the down and out, the high rolling and the thrifty, a megaphone of riches and poverty. And nowhere is this more apparent then in one of Las Vegas’ most contentious relationships — with water. If you walk the Strip, you’ll see gondolas floating on canals of aqua pool water, misters spraying overheated tourists in the hot sun, pirate ships docked in rocky coves, and fountains everywhere you look.

The abundant water is a mirage, although it wasn’t always. Las Vegas got its name, meaning “the meadows,” after Spanish explorers found artesian springs in the area. And long before that, in the Pleistocene, much of Nevada was plunged under the depths of massive Lake Lahontan. There are only vestiges of that great lake left, and the early artesian wells found near Las Vegas have long ago quenched the thirsty, but nevertheless, the thirsty keep on coming.

When groundwater reserves ran low in the 1940s, the region turned to Lake Mead. Today, the Las Vegas area gets 90 percent of its water from the no-longer-very-mighty Colorado River as it is corralled behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead. And now that’s threatened. A new federal study released in December found that the over-allocated Colorado River will be further stretched by climate change, drought and climbing populations. By 2060, the river will be short of what its dependents in seven U.S. states need by 3.2 million acre-feet a year. (An acre-foot of water is roughly enough for one suburban family per year.)

So what’s a city -- or really, its water manager -- to do? A smart gambler wouldn’t bet on the Colorado.

How Will Las Vegas Quench Its Thirst?

January 25, 2013


The Southern Nevada Water Authority's pipeline would tap four rural valleys in eastern Nevada. Read the full story here.

Patricia Mulroy is putting her money someplace else — and it’s likely to be a whole lot of money. Mulroy heads up the Southern Nevada Water Authority, an agency responsible for providing water for seven water agencies in and around Las Vegas. How smart her idea is depends on your perspective.

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