Over spring break, I drove from Reno to Las Vegas and back. If you’ve done the drive before, you know there’s not much to look at, so you can either distract yourself with the radio (I can’t because my speakers are broken) or think deeply about the very few things you do see.
The landscape is barren. The towns in between Nevada’s two largest cities are quaint, and I’m sure the people there are very nice, but let’s just say the towns are easy to pass through.
What to think about on such a long drive (seven hours for normal people and eight hours for slower drivers like me)? My mind turned to fresh water for obvious reasons.
On the way to Las Vegas, I took U.S. Highway 95, which runs straight down the diagonal part of the state from high desert to low desert. On the way back, I needed a change of scenery, so I took the 95 to Beatty and made a left turn toward California, opting for U.S. Route 395 north through Bishop. It added some time to my already snail’s-pace drive, but I got to see the Sierra Nevada and all its rivers, creeks, lakes and Subaru hatchbacks.
Among questions like “If fish end up in lakes and rivers come from snowmelt, where do the fish start?” I also asked myself “What are all of these communities going to do when the water runs out?”
Cape Town, South Africa, is the first major city with an impending water crisis. They’ve postponed their “Day Zero” (the day they run out of water) for now while the government figures out new sources of water. They seem to have made a successful recovery, but it makes you wonder which city might be next.
The Truckee Meadows does not have a water problem. We get plenty of fresh water from the Sierra and the Truckee River. If you need proof, walk down to the river right now. However, our neighbors to the south might be in trouble soon, and they’re looking for options.
The Colorado River Basin has been in a drought for most of my lifetime. One look at the bathtub ring around Lake Mead would tell you water is scarce in the mighty Colorado, which is fed by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has done an excellent job shaming people into switching from grass lawns to desert landscaping over the years (except for the golf courses; they can use as much water as they want if they keep the tourists coming). But their water conservation propaganda efforts might not be enough if the drought continues.
Those in the north, literally swimming in fresh water (you can’t or shouldn’t do that in Lake Mead), might think Southern Nevada can deal with their own water problems, but one of the south’s solutions to their impending water shortage might be a system that takes water from the north all the way downhill to Las Vegas to quench their ever-growing suburbia.
This system might look something like the California Aqueduct, a man-made river that moves fresh water from the Western Sierra to Los Angeles. Without this Romanesque water transplant system, L.A. would be dry as a bone. Nevada’s might look more like a pipeline than a concrete, above-ground river, but it’s the same idea.
Building a river that long might sound expensive and it would be, but it’s cheaper than another option: a desalination plant on the coast of either California or Mexico. It’s possible to take water from the ocean and turn it into fresh water, then pump it uphill to Southern Nevada. It sounds crazy, right? Yes, it is crazy, and that’s why it’s expensive.
We can’t tell Las Vegas’ 2.2 million residents to pack up and move somewhere wetter. And we know water might not be an issue now, but it certainly will be in the future. Probably the best move for Las Vegas at the moment is to curb development. Stop building track homes on the outskirts of town and you can save water.
The question for the north will be whether to share water. And the question for the whole state will be how we can pay for some of these water solutions. These are questions that will have to be answered in the coming decades.
Opinions expressed in The Nevada Sagebrush are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of The Sagebrush or of its staff. Ryan Suppe studies journalism and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @salsuppe.