Vegas, Baby! Should Taxpayers Bail Her Out of Water Woes?

By Tom Yulsman | August 16, 2013 3:43 pm

The image above is a screenshot from an animation of Landsat images showing the massive growth of Las Vegas between 1984 and 2012, as well as the dramatic shrinking of Lake Mead (to the right), from which the city draws 90 percent of its water. (Click on the image to watch the animation.) To keep the water flowing, southern Nevada’s water czar has suggested that the region get federal disaster relief. (Source: Google Earth Engine)

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made an historic announcement today: It is cutting its water releases from Lake Powell to their lowest levels since the giant reservoir on the Colorado River began to fill in the 1960s.

Thanks to increasing demand for Colorado River water, and decreasing supply resulting from profound drought, Lake Powell has dropped to less than half full. To help slow the decline,  the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the amount of water Lake Powell releases downstream toward Lake Mead in 2014 by almost 1 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water a U.S. household uses in a year.)

But that means Lake Mead, the other giant hydrological savings bank on the river — and the supplier of 90 percent of the water used by Las Vegas — could be headed for even more serious trouble in coming years.

That prospect has prompted the water czar for southern Nevada to float the idea of asking for federal disaster assistance to cope with dwindling water supplies. Quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared the drought and its effects to Hurricane Sandy, which inundated large parts of the Northeast in fall of 2012:

This is as much an extreme weather event as Sandy was on the East Coast. Does a drought not rise to the same level as a storm? The potential damage is just as bad.”

Vegas draws its water from Lake Mead through two intake pipes. If the reservoir keeps dropping, one of those intakes could stop working as early as spring of 2015, according to the Review-Journal story. The water authority is racing to build a third intake pipe, and is considering other options as well, including a controversial plan to  to pump 41 billion gallons of water a year to Vegas from rural Nevada. Estimated cost of that latter option alone: $7 billion, plus $8 billion in financing.

Mulroy hasn’t formally asked for a disaster declaration. But she made headlines last week when she argued that U.S. taxpayers should help pay the costs facing the residents of southern Nevada as they grapple with the costs of dealing with the ongoing drought.

If a picture really does say a thousand words, then the animation of Landsat images at the top of this post (generated by Google’s incredible Earth Engine) would say everything you need to know about how Vegas got into its current trouble. (Click on the screenshot to view the actual animation.) Reality, however, is much more complex than the animation alone would suggest.

It shows the growth of Las Vegas between 1984 and 2012. To the right of the city is Lake Mead. As the city sprawls, the lake shrinks.

The implication, of course, is that Vegas is to blame for what’s happening to Lake Mead. But actually there are many millions of users of Lake Mead’s water who don’t live in Vegas. That point was made today by J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, in a Review-Journal story:

Nevada gets 300,000 acre-feet, or about 2 percent, of the 16.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water that is parcelled out each year among seven western states and Mexico. If the Las Vegas Valley went a whole year without using any water from Lake Mead, the impact on the reservoir would be a rise of about three feet, Davis said.

Just so that reference to a three-foot rise makes sense, consider that Lake Mead has dropped 100 feet since the drought began more than a decade ago.

Also consider that Vegas has actually reduced its use of Colorado River water by some 30 percent in the last decade, even as it has grown.

So while the sprawling city and its ridiculous golf courses, fountains, and still-excessive use of water overall certainly have played a role in drawing down Lake Mead, much, much more is obviously going on.

Drought is a huge part of the picture. As Bureau of Reclamation director Michael Connor told Congress recently, over the past 14 years, Colorado River Basin flows have been among the lowest in the area in more than 1,200 years.

The famous Pogo Earth Day 1971 poster. (Source: Wikipedia.)

As this famous poster from Earth Day in 1971 put it… (Click on it to see.)

The bottom line is that consumption by the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River Water for drinking, farming, and industry — and that includes me — has been outstripping demand for years now. And the animation at the top of this post is symbolic of that stark reality.

We’re all Las Vegas, baby.

So, does that mean we should all pitch in and help Vegas out of its own particular problem — a drinking straw that may soon fail to reach the giant cup the city depends on?

Of course, Vegas would be no more than a dusty cow town, if that, were it not for the federal largesse that led to the construction of both Hoover Dam, which impounds Lake Mead, and Glen Canyon dam, which created Lake Powell. So one could argue that since U.S. taxpayers helped create the city — and so many of the big cities of the West — they have a responsibility to help pull its irons from the fire now that profound drought has left the city at the precipice of crisis.

But one could also argue that even though Vegas has cut its use of Colorado River water, it has not done nearly enough.

In an editorial last year, the Las Vegas Sun agreed:

Further efficiency and conservation efforts would improve Las Vegas’ access to a safe and reliable water supply, and reduce the need for huge capital projects and enormous increases in the utility bills of businesses and residents.

Instead of embarking on the financially risky and uncertain route of increasing supply, heedless of impacts to Las Vegas’ economy, the SNWA should double-down on reducing consumption.

What do you think? Share your opinion below. And please, be civil.

  • Charles Schmidt

    The waste of water that you see makes me say no to help there, cut back on that waste and maybe but if it stays the same and they don’t move forward to save water and reuse water then it is there problem.

  • SocraticGadfly

    If we had a president who had balls, he’d use this to force the wingnuts in the Southwest (Arizona and parts of SoCal, and certainly Utah, even more than Nevada) to admit to the reality of AGW, and to agree to a carbon tax bill, in exchange for any long-term drought help in the Southwest, when, on average, it’s only going to get worse.

    • Buddy199

      Yeah, “force” everyone to do what you want and just throw at tax at something, the typical Liberal wingnut solution for everything. I guess Obama should just force a carbon tax on China and India too, great idea.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Actually, WTO rules would let us impose a tariff on other countries if we had a tax in place here. It’s called “learning” and “having an open mind.” Try it some time, you might like it.

        • Buddy199

          “Open mind”? Liberal ideologies such as you are the most closed minded intellectual fundamentalists that exist outside the Middle East. Your well known credo: Diversity. That we approve of. Or else.

      • Tom Yulsman

        Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, now of the Energy & Enterprise Initiative, thinks his fellow Republicans actually can be persuaded to back a carbon tax IF every dollar it raises is used to reduce taxes elsewhere. (See this story about it: If such a tax were enacted, it would not have the effects on the economy that you fear. Moreover, it would speed the transition from carbon-based fuels to alternative sources of energy — a switch we ultimately have to make regardless of whether climate change is a factor.

        I might add two things: First, the German economy has been thriving even as — and arguably because — they have been aggressively pursuing renewable energy in a long-term plan to reduce their carbon emissions. Also, U.S. carbon emissions have actually been dropping, even without a tax. And the Energy Information Administration projects that annual emissions will stay below 2008 levels until at least 2040. This is what we can do without even trying.

        That said, if China, India, Brazil and other rapidly growing economies do not also rein in their own emissions, nothing we do by ourselves will have any discernible effect on the climate. But it’s pretty obvious that if we do nothing, they will too.

        • Buddy199

          Germany’s (and Spain’s) attempted renewable experimemt has been a debacle.

          “Because renewable power sources have been so unreliable, Germany has been forced to construct numerous new coal plants in an effort to replace the nuclear energy it has taken offline. In fact the country will build more coal-fired facilities this year than at any time in the past two decades – bringing an estimated 5,300 megawatts of new capacity online. Most of these facilities will burn lignite, too, which is strip-mined and emits nearly 30 percent more carbon dioxide than hard coal.”

          CO2 levels have been dropping in the U.S. because of the nat gas revolution which resulted from tech sdvances and economics. It had nothing to do with buteaucratic fiat.

          Billions of people in India, China and Brazil are attempting to raise themselves out of subsistance poverty into the middle class and enjoy a life style we take completely for granted. They could care less about polar bears or sea levels 100 years from now; they’re much more concerned with feeding their children and doing whatever they can to help them get a basic education and medical care. To overlook that gigantic fact of life is utter cultural snobbery and arrogance.

          They will burn coal and oil to reach their goal because of economics, physics and chemistry. Windmills and solar panels won’t to the job – that’s just science. And believing that we can set a moral example for them to follow to change their foolish ways is just further elitist arrogance.

          The one realistic bridge to the non-carbon world economy is nuclear. And Greens are doing everything they can to block it.

        • Byron Winchell

          One theory on less U.S. carbon emission was the 2008 Great Recession’s impact on industrial activity. There’s really no way that could be in effect til 2040, so maybe regulators are doing a few things right after all.

      • j2saret

        Yea live where it is dry and FORCE other areas not only to ship you water but also pay the bulk of the cost to ship it there. What part of being totally dependent on the taxpayers of the entire country to support the inappropriate location and or economic syle of Lost Wages? You parasites have a very funny notion of freedom.

    • Byron Winchell

      Or skip the “drought help” entirely and let the population either work it out or vote with their feet. True, it will be politically uncomfortable for awhile, and then, as the population dwindles, districts will be redrawn and there won’t be that many Southwestern Congressmen. The three rules of modern government: 1. If it moves, tax it. 2. If it keeps moving, regulate it. 3. If it stops moving, subsidize it.

  • Ken Albertsen

    We’ve heard of ‘spending beyond one’s means’. Vegas is ‘growing beyond its means.’ Let golf courses dry and swimming pools empty. Live within your means, Las Vegans. You gambled by insanely developing a region with scant water, now you’re going to have to make adjustments.

  • AkiraAkira

    I didn’t even see recycling take place in Vegas so it will be interesting how this is managed.

  • cnm

    Money is not a viable long-term solution. Eliminate the golf courses and fountains. Taxpayers should not have to support continued waste.

  • DavidHP1

    Ken people who live along the coast, in river flood plains, and earthquake areas also insanely developed in regions with known natural disasters but the tax payers are also rebuilding their homes in the same area. I think people just think Las Vegas and desert are not as important as other parts of the country – it why you want to dump your nuclear waste in our backyards.

    • Byron Winchell

      I’m pretty sure Nevada has the maximum percentage of Federally owned land in a sizable state. We sure as hell will dump the nuclear waste there on our land near where you squatters hang out. It’s a freak’in desert, man, live where it rains now and then.

  • lisacolorado

    Drink all that water that’s in those pools and fountains and lawns. Why do you have all those thirsty features when you’re in a desert in a drought?

  • Madhusudan Katti

    This “disaster” should make it clearer that our payment on all the development in the Cadillac Desert (to use Marc Reisner’s evocative phrase), which is based on borrowing resources from nature without finding ways to replenish them, is now due (or overdue). And so we have to figure out a way to back out of the ongoing unsustainable development of cities and farms throughout the US southwest.

    It is interesting to think of Vegas seeking federal disaster relief assistance to deal with this water crisis, although I’m not sure what federal dollars can do if the natural water supply itself is dwindling. What do those seeking federal assistance have in mind for the money they may get from taxpayers elsewhere? Is it for changing the landscape and nature of development to reduce water use, or to put in more/longer straws deeper down into the reservoir so we can suck it dry faster? Does this request for federal disaster relief funds also mean that we are acknowledging that Vegas itself (and other cities like it) is a man-made disaster, not this decade-long drought which is part of what happens in desert regions?

    While some of the socioeconomic effects of droughts are similar to those of storms, the response cannot be the same because there are fundamental ecological differences between these natural phenomena. It is possible (if ill advised) to recover from storms and hurricanes by rebuilding infrastructure and houses, and to pick up the pieces. It is also possible to redesign those cities with architectural and engineering solutions that can increase resilience to future storms. Many civilizations have managed to survive / thrive in hurricane-prone areas for long periods of time throughout history, because those disasters, while causing damage, do not fundamentally reduce the amount of natural resources available for our use; if anything the heavy rainfalls can actually enhance the fertility of the regions for agriculture. Prolonged droughts, which are characteristic of desert regions, on the other hand, have a tendency to wipe out civilizations that build up beyond their natural resource means. If we build cities and farms that consume more water than is naturally available (there is a reason these are called deserts!), it is inevitable that we will face such “disasters”, and once the rivers and aquifers are sucked dry, we don’t really have anywhere else to turn. The American Southwest is littered with archaeological sites that are testimony to such overreach by past civilizations which eventually bit the proverbial dust in these deserts. We really have to face up to that long-term history and the ecological reality of living and building a civilization in a desert region. There is no way to sustain any city in the long run if its water footprint exceeds its natural supply, however many straws we stick into the aquifers. Any long-term solution has to incorporate serious changes to the nature of development in the region, which must reduce water use and incorporate better ways to conserve water and try to replenish the aquifer instead of continuing to grow as these cities have been doing for some decades now.

  • Brian Phillips

    “Cadillac Desert” should be mandatory reading for anyone living in what is an unsustainable water supply environment. Thirty years ago, teaching “A Geography of Natural Resources”, my students debated the wisdom of a growing Las Vegas and concluded that it would be unwise to invest in property there. Archaeologists of the future will wonder about this illogically placed desert city and why it was abandoned suddenly.

    • randy brown

      the almighty dollar ( illegal dollar I might add, as las vegas was begun by gangsters) as in all things

  • Michael Jensen

    I live in Albuquerque, supplied by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (WUA). The WUA gets its water from pumping (about 55%) and surface water (45%). I work for a river conservation non-profit and have made pressing the WUA for more aggressive conservation a part of my work. The WUA (and the city of Albuquerque earlier) started a conservation program in 1995, not 2002 like the SNWA. Albuquerque’s usage was what we all here thought was astronomical at around 250 gallons per person per day (gpcd), not the las Vegas valley 315gpcd. That average per capita figure includes all uses: industrial, commercial, institutional, single-family and multi-family residential. And people still have lawns (on the older residences). And the program is largely voluntary with below average water rates. The City got it down to about 175gpcd by 2004 and the WUA has gotten it down to about 148 since then. Their new goal is 135 by 2024, although they say that getting to 110 is “reasonable” at some point. By comparison, the SNWA goal is to get to 199gpcd by 2035 (see their summary here: Sure, conserving water means getting less revenue unless rates are changed and/or the utility gets more efficient. But I heartily agree that the SNWA ought to do MUCH better conserving water before they go to the house for a loan …

    • Byron Winchell

      What condition your water mains in?

  • Paula Carnes

    Las Vegas is a huge city, and yet we are using LESS water now, not more. Most of us have switched to xeriscape – that means no grass for those of you who live in the rain. The Bellagio fountains are supplied by water from underground, not Lake Mead. So who is using all the water from Lake Mead? Let’s do some more homework. Oh, and we recycle too.

    • Byron Winchell

      L.A. is using that water. See how you come out trying to renegotiate the interstate compact on the Colorado. Losers.

  • George Swenson

    This is just the first of many water crises, I am thinking. Our nation isn’t looking far enough ahead. So think real long about turning this down.
    Your city could be in this situation sooner than you think.

    • Byron Winchell

      Betcha we got a lot more cushion to work with in Ohio than Nevada. However, if Ohio becomes a desert, I will go live elsewhere if I can. I will not expect to be subsidized in order to continue as before. Note: Ohio River Valley coal electric generation is about to take a huge regulatory hit. We’ll need to convert boilers to natural gas (if possible) or go nuclear, which won’t happen. No matter how it goes, my electric rates are going to rise and I don’t ask you to pay the increases. I also recognize that I shouldn’t send pollution downwind to NY and PA. People came to Ohio to manufacture using cheap and dirty coal energy, just as lots of people went to Nevada because of subsidized water (among other things), now the time has come to pay the piper. The only difference is that the Westerners were subsidized from the first and feel a right to continue with even greater subsidies. Can’t be failing to vote for Obama, both states went for him.

  • Byron Winchell

    Big business using big water can pony up big money in conservation and alternate sources (good luck with that latter solution, there aren’t any). If investing to continue to make money is a problem, then too bad for them. I don’t see why I should be taxed in another state to solve their local problem. Hey, maybe it’ll rain.

  • Tomhere

    You were warned again, and again, and again. The cause of this is greed. Pure and simple greed. Development, “progress”, growth, boom town, it goes on and on and on. Yes, I can sympathize with you, but I won’t willingly give you one cent of my money to help you. Drink the fountains of Bellagio.

  • Brian Allan

    If this drought continues, which it probably will until a major climate change event, Las Vegas and other towns/cities in this region will not survive. Start looking for new homes guys/gals!!

  • Sanjosemike

    Like it or not, LV has a (well earned) reputation of waste and excess. This is true for their use of ALL local natural resources.
    Let them start to make some serious inroads to conservation. (I know that’s an obscene word in LV.)
    Then, after 5 years of serious conservation efforts, we can “review” their requests for Government aid. (PS, the casinos need to start paying their share.)
    It’s not up to the rest of the Country to support profit making casinos, even if this means less money to their executives and shareholders.

    • Paula Carnes

      I thought the article we are replying on said that Las Vegas has reduced its use of water. But there is a key point here – the Bellagio, arguably one of the most famous water fountains in the world, uses water from underground wells. I know a guy who works for the water company here in Vegas. He claims there is plenty of water underground north of us in the desert. I hope the powers that be in Clark County get busy investigating this source.

  • randy brown


  • Mike Shefler

    Bottom line — too many people, too few resources. Not just in Las Vegas, but worldwide. The Las Vegas crisis is just a microcosm of what’s going top occur over the next century. It’s not going to be pretty, and there aren’t any easy solutions.

  • Dave Parta

    To even THINK of federal subsidies is just plain stupid. Open that Pandora’s Box and see the millions of hands stretching out for their piece of the unfunded pie.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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