Column: Vegas teaches a water lesson

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.