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home : opinion : opinion May 24, 2016

4/22/2014 6:00:00 AM
Column: Vegas teaches a water lesson

Doug McMurdo
Miner Staff Reporter

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, Mark Twain never said whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.

What he said was whiskey is for drinking and water is worth fighting over.

There's a subtle difference. Twain's observation lends a kind of civility to the process of sharing water, within families, villages, states and even nations.

We in the West like to think we're the only area of the country that really has to worry about severe, prolonged, bone-bleaching drought, and that used to be mostly true.

But in recent years, severe droughts have hit the Midwest, the Southeast and the Deep South.

Blame it on the oceans. Something about oscillation and warm air colliding with cool air. Every two or three decades this oscillation reverses and the result in the Southwest is this slow-motion game of climatic leapfrog, in which every 20 or so years the region is either wetter than average or dryer than average.

I've lived in the Southwest for 33 years and they've all been drier than a mouth full of poof dirt. So I'm a little perturbed the experts are saying we could be in this current drought for the next 20 years.

Nobody ever told me we came out of the last one, or the one before that.

I've covered enough water meetings in my career to know the Southwest has been in a perpetual state of drought since about 1300.

I've also covered enough water meetings in my career to know that water, despite the law of gravity, does not run downhill.

Water runs towards money.

Development certainly influences the water table and in boom years the unspoken pact between the heavy hitters in construction, real estate and government has been a resounding, "Don't worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself."

On the other side of the coin, planting houses saves a lot more water than does planting crops. As reported in Sunday's edition, there are concerns regarding an increase in vegetable prices thanks to the latest record-breaking drought in California. Closer to home, folks in Golden Valley fret a farm in their community will suck from the ground what precious water they have.

Forest and grassfires in recent years have become much larger and dramatically unpredictable - and undoubtedly more deadly - thanks in large measure to drought.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room nobody wants to talk about is people. Simply put, for eons the Southwest was sparsely populated and that's how it was supposed to be. The region wasn't built to support millions of people. The ecosystems of the Southwest were designed to abide a couple hundred thousand nomads and the occasional village with a cornfield and a community well.

We know that for every year of drought, we need that many years with above-average precipitation to balance things out. Call me pessimistic, but 700 wet years in a row isn't going to happen, so don't invest in Southwestern-themed umbrellas and goathead-proof galoshes.

Invest instead in the latest ways to conserve water, because the illusion in the Southwest is that there are wetter than average years, but when the normal annual rainfall is negligible, how can you tell?

There is a conservation blueprint to follow.

When I moved to the Las Vegas area very early in the 1980s, they said the valley would be out of water in 20 years. Back then, fewer than 500,000 people lived in all of Clark County. Over the next three decades, the county's population mushroomed to more than 2 million, most of them concentrated in the Las Vegas Valley.

Homeowners ripped grass from their yards. Local officials even paid people to replace sod with desert landscaping. A gazillion tax dollars were spent on some really expensive plumbing, and now almost every gallon of water, even the stuff that gets flushed, is reused.

They're still showering in Las Vegas. They're drinking coffee and Las Vegas Boulevard has more fountains than Miami Beach.

Folks can bicker all they want about climate change. They either deny science or they deny God - there doesn't seem to be any middle ground here for most of the participants in this particular debate club.

The question that can't be debated, not even by the most irrational of thinkers, is whether we are in the throes of a prolonged drought that shows no signs of letting up, one that imperils an entire region and multiple millions of lives.

To paraphrase Mr. Twain, whiskey is for drinking and water is worth the fight.

It is, after all, essential to life.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Article comment by: Clarence Rutherford

The real problem In the west is Southern California thinking they are in a wet, tropical climate. The LA area is a desert, but too many rich people think it is tropical. In Santa Barbara, they have rich people paying $10,000 a month fines for lawns, when they have no water. And they don't care. The Southern Californian standing at Hoover Dam and observing that it looks like Lake Mead is low and you all are having a drought. Look, buddy, most of that water in Lake Mead goes to California, YOU ARE HAVING A DROUGHT! There should be a ban on lawn watering in Southern California. There should be no additional new golf courses in Arizona, California or Nevada. Thankfully many golf courses are going out of business, saving tons of water. In this area, Rhodes is the result of anti AMA sentiment in Mohave County.

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Article comment by: Wayne Erwin

I check the ADWR web site and discovered applications for 32 well permits all to be located in the Red Lake aria of the Hualapai Valley under 10 different LLCs all sharing the same Las Vegas address. Included with the permit request is a letter stating: "To Whom it May Concern: We are a corporate group of over 50 companies. The following subsidiary companies have land holdings in Mohave County, Arizona... One or more of these companies will be applying for well drilling permits..." Most of the permits are for more than one well and some have been documented to reach down into the aquifer, 700 plus feet. From my living room window I've watched truck load after truck load of equipment going out to the project most of it steel pipe casing and plastic irrigation pipe. Why so many deep wells if all your interested in is farming with what has been described in other KDM articles about the Kingman Farms using a water conservation drip system? And as far as drip system goes does Kingman Farms plan on dripping the water from high over head? Just yesterday day I drove out to the lake and discovered an array of large wheeled sprinkler systems the kind used in alfalfa fields. And what about all the dust being created? That can't be good for our health.

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Article comment by: Joe Mannix

Right-on Old Desert Woman.

I think the Miner is just setting us citizens up for a type of class war-fare. Good thing we have the new armored vehicle with our police dept.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Article comment by: Dynamo Dynamic

Israel is an example of the desert flourishing when the land and water is used wisely. They export vegetables and flowers worldwide. @ Wise Old Desert Woman what you say so plainly is so right on. Golden Valley has so much potential.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Article comment by: Old Desert woman

There are other things we can do to help increase our ground water. We can put in gabions in washes to slow the water so it can soak in. We can put in swales with mulch so water can be retained. We can add mulch to the soil and plant trees. We can stop scraping the soil and make indentations so deep rooted prairie grasses can hold and absorb the water.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Article comment by: Jim Byrne

Good article. It is time for all of us realize that we live in a desert and what a desert is. We have a limited supply of water and cannot continue building or farming on a large scale.
Unfortunately the greedy trend of expansion will most likely continue.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Article comment by: The Fox Hound

Good Column Doug I hope some of these old dogs who simply line up and vote Republican will remember who gave away their water and it wasn't Obama. It looks to me that our water is up for sale to the highest bidder and the people that pay the taxes are not getting any representation here. If this was on a ballot I'd bet my house that Rhodes would be sent packing. We all need to go to this water meeting and raise hell.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Article comment by: V Stokes

Well said Doug. I've been preaching the same thing since I moved here. One of the first things we did was rip out the junky sprinkler system and remove the 20x30 little green oasis in the back. If I wanted to mow and fertilize, I would have stayed back in VA. We removed most of the water sucking plants and put in a few desert items that get all the water they need from normal weather, or the condensate I collect from my A/C and purge water from my small swamp cooler. My water bill (this was almost 8 years ago) immediately dropped from over $100 in the summer to about $50.

Nothing drives me crazier than to see water just running down 2 or 3 blocks because someone is watering their postage stamp size lawn and can't be bothered to do it right.

Maybe the City should change their standard usage period to spring or summer months instead of winter when water is at it's lowest usage.

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