Capitalism, Climate Change, Climate Change Feedback Loops, Climate Refugees, Drought in America's Bread basket, Droughts in the U.S. Southwest, Ecological Overshoot, Environmental Collapse, Global Forest Die-Off, Greasewood Shrub, Hoover Dam, John Bredehoeft, Las vegas, Peak Water, Resource Wars, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Southwest Wild Fires, The Dust Bowl, The Incredible Shrinking Lake Mead, The Unsustainability of Mega-Cities, Urban Sprawl, Water Mining
Despite industrial capitalist carbon man’s inexhaustible faith in human progress with its techno-fix gadgetry, the Age of Stupid is alive and well today. Mega-cities in deserts can only sustain themselves so long as cheap fuels abound and, more importantly, life-giving water is available. These hard facts of life become even more unavoidable when 70% of your state’s population resides in the thirsty city of Las Vegas. But as history has shown in the parched American Southwest, water runs uphill to human population and money. Las Vegas, the epicenter of Nevada’s major revenue-generating industries (tourism, gaming, and conventions), is the powerhouse of the state. So when Sin City demands something, all bow down to it. In the case of water, that would mean the rest of the state with its rural farmers, native wildlife and plants, and delicate desert ecosystems.
We spoke previously of the nearly $1 billion Las Vegas project of constructing a third straw to reach down to the bottom of Lake Mead whose water line has been dropping precipitously and endangering the other two existing water intake pipes. Vegas has also been busy buying up the water rights of farmers and land owners in the rest of the state and paying them 10 to over 20 times the assessed value of their land. Some have tried to fight back at this “water grab”, but most have taken the money.
As discussed before, the feedback loop of a diminished albedo effect from less snowfall will result in more heat from the sun being retained by the earth and the desiccation of soil. Tree die-offs and increased levels of wind-born dust particles will also be part of that global warming feedback loop.
Looking at a graph by the National (Interagency) Fire Center, an upward trend in the average acres burned per fire is clearly visible:
Getting back to the water consumption of Las Vegas, their current water grab amounts to water mining, an illegal practice according to Nevada laws, and will likely lead to an environmental disaster:
…Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the proposed project could cause “an epic environmental disaster” by draining groundwater levels and drying up springs and wetlands, pushing 25 species of Great Basin springsnails near extinction…
…Lynn Davis, NPCA’s Nevada field office manager[:] “The threats of this water mining project are far reaching: It could be built at anguishing public expense, could dry up the area and plunder Great Basin National Park, threaten the region’s rural life and create health issues that would multiply economic and social losses.”…
…”The federal government’s own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster,” said [Rob] Mrowka, the Center for Biological Diversity ecologist. “It’s really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project.”…
…As he explains it, there is no water to spare for Las Vegas without disrupting the equilibrium between water flowing in from snowmelt and water taken out every year by ranchers, plants and animals…
…Mining ground water is illegal in Nevada.
Mine enough of it and the water table can drop for hundreds of miles around. Springs stop flowing, streams disappear, plants and animals dependent on them die.
The way Las Vegas intends on getting around this scenario is by killing off the desert’s signature shrub, the greasewood (a phreatophyte plant), whose long tap-root reaches into the water table below. The only problem is that this plant holds the topsoil together just like the Midwest’s prairie-grass whose removal for wheat production lead to the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930’s:
…Target the phreatophytes whose water you intend to take, and don’t allow them to compete for water.
Pump hard. Kill them fast. Then let the system return to equilibrium so what water comes in from snowmelt equals what is taken out by Las Vegas pumps, and the water table doesn’t fall inexorably.
But this weeds-for-water logic becomes a problem when greasewood serves an important function above and beyond offering forage to deer and cattle.
Phreatophytes prevent dust storms.
Spring Valley sits at the foot of Mt. Wheeler. In 1986, then-Congressman Harry Reid led Wheeler’s transformation into Great Basin National Park, in no small part because of Spring Valley’s pristine air.
Without a high water table saturating the valley floor and the long roots of phreatophytes anchoring the soil, Spring Valley could become the kind of dust bowl created by Los Angeles after William Mulholland began pumping Owens Lake in 1913.
Once Los Angeles drained the lake in California’s high Sierra, it began taking Owens Valley ground water. By the 1980s, the wasteland created by Los Angeles had given dust a new common name.
The vile mix of fine sand, arsenic and assorted metals billowing out of Owens Valley became the single worst source of “particulate pollution” in the nation, registering at 23 times the level allowed by federal heath standards. It filled local emergency rooms with asthmatic children. It traveled hundreds of miles, clouding three national parks and repeatedly shutting down China Lake Naval Weapons Center.
According to estimates by experts, the water demands of Las Vegas will inevitably lead to the collapse of the water table in the surrounding area:
[The model of Timothy Durbin, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s own expert witness] was finally ready to simulate pumping for the full 90,000 acre-feet of water being sought by Las Vegas. The result? The level of the water table underlying Spring Valley would drop on the order of 200 feet or more over 75 years.
This would, as Durbin and Katzer had envisioned, indeed kill off Spring Valley’s phreatophytes.
It would also end traditional ranching in the valley.
And with no water saturating the top soil and no roots to anchor it, the parched earth of Spring Valley could indeed become a new Owens Valley.
What happens in Vegas does Not stay in Vegas. Their water mining will have far-reaching effects beyond the following:
Despite the fact that water mining is illegal in Nevada and that the water demands of a man-made illusion like Las Vegas will lead to environmental disaster, the growth of this mega-city, just like others around the world, marches on at the expense of the natural world. The world’s population is flocking to them, but modern cities are at war with the environment and are essentially Not sustainable:
…Dr. William Rees at the University of British Columbia, who developed the ‘ecological footprint’ analysis, points out that most cities require the environmental services from a land base 300 to 1000 times the city area. Rees points out that a city is a ‘biophysical entity’ that includes the complex of land, water, atmosphere, resources, and waste sinks required to support the human population.
Rich consumer cities of Europe and North America require the most ecological space, but all modern cities carry an ecological debt to nature. I live in Vancouver, Canada, which prides itself as being a fairly ‘green’ city with bike paths and urban gardens, but even so, Vancouver requires a global biophysical area about 390 times the city itself.
In the study Ecosystem Appropriation by Cities published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Carl Folke and colleagues estimate that the 29 largest Baltic cities – including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki – appropriate for their resource consumption and waste an area of forest, agricultural, marine, and wetland ecosystems over 560 times the area of the cities themselves. New York requires a total eco-footprint almost 1000 times the city’s geographic area. Tokyo requires twice the entire domestic bio-capacity of Japan.
The Folke study shows that the 744 largest cities worldwide require more CO2 sequestration than the entire world’s forests could provide. “If the goal is sustainable human settlements,” write the authors, “the increasingly limited capacity of ecosystems to sustain urban areas has to be explicitly accounted for in city planning and development.”…
Restrictions to water, exacerbated by climate change, will be the primary factor in the collapse of the modern metropolis.