In the spring of 1955, an attraction called Dancing Waters, an automated fountain show featuring 4,000 jet streams that could leap 50 feet into the air, opened at the Royal Nevada Resort in Las Vegas. The Dancing Waters used 78 tons of water each night, all from Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, about 25 miles from town and the valley’s main source of clean water. Most of Lake Mead’s water supply comes from the Colorado River, which currently supplies most of the Southwest from California to New Mexico. In the past, resorts on the Strip would simply dig into the ground to get their water. But water tables had been dropping at more than 4 feet a year, with some properties being drilled as deep as 300 feet. In 1955, the year the Royal Nevada opened, Vegas had no choice but to draw water from Lake Mead. Within that first year, the lake’s water level dropped nearly 20 feet, its lowest level since 1938.
Many things about life in Vegas inspire mockery or fear, but perhaps nothing more so than the Mojave’s relentless desiccation. Mockery, because a big city shouldn’t be here, of course, an example of hubris and careless consumption of resources. Fear, because nevertheless such a city is here along with more than 2 million residents and about ten times as many tourists in a slow year. Las Vegas water authorities recently approved the deployment of a third pumping station in Lake Mead, the deepest yet.
I hate thinking about such things, which I realize may be part of the problem. Resource scarcity must have been a pressing issue for as long as people lived in this area, but growing up here it never occurred to me. Why should it? By then, Vegas’ corporate resort era had begun, and the sheer size of the Strip, with its golf courses, hotels, and fountains, complemented the suburban idyll of green lawns, pools, and water parks. The everydayness of life in the desert had long ago been cemented by the installation of comfort-enhancing technology – a life of conditioned, willful ignorance. Of course, that’s also the reason why people who don’t live here often face the impending crisis with a knowing grin: America’s playground, the supposed place of all excesses, short-sightedness and delusions, is on the verge of its self-inflicted demise.
The reality is the question any big city that is here is worth thinking about. With all of the innovative water-saving methods the strip has introduced, like reusing the water needed for fountains or landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, along with aggressive municipal campaigns to cut water use in the suburbs even further, the whole rests Operating on the idea that if people want to be here, they should. From this perspective, every bad situation avoided was in the interest of buying time. The drought that afflicted the Colorado watershed in 1999 thwarted then-drastic environmental protection efforts by the Vegas water authorities to both curb water use (paying people to pull grass from their yards, strict irrigation schedules, water cops) and, controversially, Buy water rights from Colorado River users so even more water can be diverted to Las Vegas.
Back in 2015, said John Entsminger, the director general of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and a consistent crisis denier Las Vegas Business Press:
“There is no shortage of water. Each year we present a 50-year resource plan to our Board of Directors; so we always know we have a secure water supply portfolio for the next 50 years. I think there’s a misconception in our community that we’re running out of water, and that’s not true. We only use about two-thirds of our legal entitlement; We collect enough water to power about 750,000 new homes this year and next.”
Last Tuesday in conversation with Now here, he said, “The reality of the situation is that we’re just simply using more water than this river is likely to give us in the future.” He then spoke about further cuts in water use before emphasizing how water secure southern Nevada is. I have no reason to doubt that he thinks everything is fine, people can believe anything if their work depends on it. But the long-term prospects of life in this part of the country are called into question by every new climate forecast and endangered by the increasing number of people moving here every year. In 2020 alone, nearly 70,000 people moved from California to Nevada, a number that rose to 300,000 by the following year.
A body was discovered in a barrel at Lake Mead last weekend. The speculation is that the body had been dumped decades ago, an apparent murder that literally came to light for a spectacularly unsubtle reason: the water level in Lake Mead, which was steadily declining every year, had dropped so low that the barrel was visible . In an interview Monday, Lt. Homicide’s Ray Spencer: “The water level has dropped so much in the last 30 to 40 years that if a person drops the barrel in the water, it goes down where the person was, you’ll never find it was because the water level is going down. The water level has dropped, revealing the barrel. The barrel didn’t move.”
I love this city and don’t want to leave it, but it’s becoming impossible to continue living here and not see dead bodies everywhere.
Nicholas Russell is a writer based in Las Vegas. His work has been published in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music and The Point, among others.