High and Dry in Vegas

Nevada's water crisis is getting harder to ignore

BOULDER CITY, NV - JANUARY 11: Aerial view  Lake Mead is a water reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on t...
George Rose/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Nicholas Russell
Lake Mead

In the spring of 1955, an attraction at the Royal Nevada resort in Las Vegas called the Dancing Waters opened, an automated fountain show featuring 4,000 jet streams that could jump 50 feet into the air. The Dancing Waters used 78 tons of water each night, all of it funneled from Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, about 25 miles from the city, and the main source of clean water in the valley. The majority of Lake Mead’s water supply comes from the Colorado River, which currently services most of the Southwest from California to New Mexico. In earlier days on the Strip, resorts simply drilled into the ground for their water. But groundwater levels had been dropping more than 4 feet per year, with some properties drilling as far down 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 almost 20 feet, its lowest since 1938.

A lot of things about living in Vegas inspire derision or fear, but maybe none more than the unrelenting aridification of the Mojave. Derision, because obviously a large city shouldn’t be here in the first place, an illustration of hubris and careless resource-gobbling. Fear, because, despite this, such a city is here, along with more than 2 million residents, and about ten times as many tourists during a slow year. Recently, water officials in Las Vegas approved the use of a third pumping station in Lake Mead, the deepest yet.

I hate thinking about this sort of thing, which I realize is maybe part of the problem. Resource scarcity had to have been a pressing issue as far back as there have ever been people living in this area, but it didn’t occur to me much growing up here. Why would it? By that point, the corporate resort era of Vegas had already taken off and the sheer scale of the Strip, with its golf courses, hotels, and fountains, complemented the suburban idyll of green lawns, swimming pools, and water parks. The mundanity of living in the desert had long ago been cemented by the installation of comfort-ensuring technologies — a life of air-conditioned willful ignorance. Of course, this is why people who don’t live here often treat the impending crisis with a knowing smirk: America’s Playground, the supposed site of every kind of debauchery, myopia, and delusion will be facing its own self-wrought extinction.

The reality is, the question of any large city existing here bears thinking about. For all the innovative water-saving methods the Strip has implemented, like reusing the water needed for fountain displays or landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, along with aggressive municipal campaigns to restrict water usage in the suburbs even further, the whole operation rests on the idea that if people want to be here, they should. From that perspective, each dire situation avoided has been in the interest of buying time. The drought that hit the Colorado watershed in 1999 deterred what were, at the time, drastic conservation efforts by Vegas water authorities to both curb water usage (paying people to pull up sod from their yards, strict watering schedules, water cops) and, controversially, buy water rights from Colorado River users so that even more water could be diverted to Las Vegas.

Back in 2015, John Entsminger, the GM of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and perennial crisis denier, told Las Vegas Business Press:

“Running out of water is not a possibility. Every year we take to our board a 50-year resource plan; so that we always know that we have a secure water supply portfolio for the next 50 years. I think there is a misperception in our community that we are running out of water and that’s not true. We are using only about two-thirds of our legal entitlement; we’re banking enough water to serve about 750,000 new homes this year and next year.”

This past Tuesday, speaking to Here & Now, he said, “The reality of the situation is that we’re simply using more water than this river is likely to give us into the future.” He then went on to discuss further cutbacks on water usage, before stressing how water-secure southern Nevada is. I have no reason to doubt that he thinks everything is fine, people can believe all kinds of things when their jobs depend on it. But the long-term prospects of living in this part of the country are called into question by each new climate projection and imperiled by the growing number of people who move here each year. In 2020, almost 70,000 people moved from California to Nevada alone, a number that jumped up to 300,000 by the following year.

Last weekend, a body crammed inside a barrel was discovered at Lake Mead. The speculation is that the body had been dumped decades ago, an apparent homicide literally unearthed for one spectacularly unsubtle reason: the water level in Lake Mead, which has been steadily decreasing each year, dropped low enough for the barrel to be visible. In an interview on Monday, Homicide Lt. Ray Spencer said, “The water level has dropped so much over the last 30 to 40 years that, where the person was located, if a person were to drop the barrel in the water and it sinks, you are never going to find it unless the water level drops. The water level has dropped and made the barrel visible. The barrel did not move.”

I love this city, and I don’t want to leave, but it’s growing impossible to live here anymore and not start seeing bodies everywhere.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.