Those seeking a dystopian postcard for the effects of long-term megadrought and human-caused climate change will find a dandy at Lake Mead.
With its ever-growing “bathtub ring,” plummeting water line and the obscenely exposed power-generating turbines at Hoover Dam, you won’t often hear it referred to as a “man-made wonder” these days. The lake that overflowed into Hoover Dam’s spillway in 1983 today is at 29 percent of capacity—and dropping.
About 480 driving miles north, shimmering Lake Tahoe fools the casual observer with cool breezes, big pines and idyllic scenery. But it, too, is in crisis. Imperiled by wildland fires increasing in frequency and intensity, a diminishing snowpack and two decades of drought, the sapphire of the Sierra has shrunk enough to close a boat launch and, climate scientists contend, far bigger challenges are ahead.
It’s that way throughout Nevada, the driest state, where ranchers and farmers vie for diminishing resources, Indigenous tribes once again must watch their backs and long-coveted water rights, and corporate titans jockey for control of aquifers from Gerlach to Sandy Valley.
Other battles are brewing. Some are harder to see, but offer their own lesson.
Increased aridification threatens the state’s precious riparian zones. After decades in the field, UNLV life science professor Stanley Smith has studied most of them.
“Riparian zones only take up probably 5 percent of the landscape, but they support more than half the species,” Smith said. “This is the situation where if we start losing our ephemeral water courses, if they just dry up, that’s really going to affect the biodiversity in addition to riparian plants just dying. That would have a bigger impact, I think, on the public than would the open desert being a little drier.”
With much hanging in the balance, some stakeholders are taking reasonable steps. After being rebuffed for its own water pipeline plan from rural counties to thirsty Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s 2021 Water Resource Plan called for reducing individual daily consumption from its current 110 gallons per day to 86 gallons by 2035.
The removal of “decorative” grass throughout Southern Nevada would have been a courageous decision 25 years ago and a forward-thinking one a decade ago. But at least it’s finally been made.
Northern Nevada should do no less—especially considering its ongoing housing crisis.
The issues are complex and often in conflict, but I think we must come to a common conclusion.
Conservation is integral, but it’s foolish to continue to think of it simply as a lynchpin for greater development. If there’s anything nature and scientific models are telling us, it’s that continuing to practice the boomtown philosophy of breakneck growth in an arid land ensures calamity.
The long-term answer may be a kind of next-generation conservation that combines innovative water-saving and fast-tracked desalinization, and substantive changes in interstate water compacts.
In effect, embrace the science—and take a lesson from those very different lakes.
Nevada native John L. Smith is a longtime journalist and the author of Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless Battle Over the West’s Public Lands.