The race to stop Las Vegas from running dry

Lake Mead: boaters seen in front of a white

Lake Mead: boaters seen in front of a white “bathtub ring” on the rocks on the upstream side of the Hoover Dam    Photo: Getty

Amid a brutal drought the reservoir that supplies 90 per cent of Las Vegas’s water is fast disappearing and desperate attempts to save Sin City are under way

(SOURCE)   Outside Las Vegas’s Bellagio hotel tourists gasp in amazement as fountains shoot 500ft into the air, performing a spectacular dance in time to the music of Frank Sinatra.

Gondolas ferry honeymooners around canals modelled on those of Venice, Roman-themed swimming pools stretch for acres, and thousands of sprinklers keep golf courses lush in the middle of the desert.

But, as with many things in Sin City, the apparently endless supply of water is an illusion. America’s most decadent destination has been engaged in a potentially catastrophic gamble with nature and now, 14 years into a devastating drought, it is on the verge of losing it all.

“The situation is as bad as you can imagine,” said Tim Barnett, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It’s just going to be screwed. And relatively quickly. Unless it can find a way to get more water from somewhere Las Vegas is out of business. Yet they’re still building, which is stupid.”

The crisis stems from the Las Vegas’s complete reliance on Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, which was created by the Hoover Dam in 1936 – after which it took six years to fill completely.

It is located 25 miles outside the city and supplies 90 per cent of its water. But over the last decade, as Las Vegas’s population has grown by 400,000 to two million, Lake Mead has slowly been drained of four trillion gallons of water and is now well under half full. Mr Barnett predicts it may be a “dead pool” that provides no water by about 2036.

The lake currently looks as if someone has removed a giant plug from it.

Around its edges a strip of bleached rock known locally as the “bath tub ring” towers like the White Cliffs of Dover, showing where the water level used to be. Pyramid-shaped mountains rise from the shallow waters.

Tying up his 15ft boat at the water’s edge Tom Merrit, 51, who has fished on the lake for years, pointed to the top of a faraway hill and said: “My boat used to be right up there. We’ve had to keep moving down and down as the water recedes.”

“That rock never used to be there,” he added, gesturing to a newly-emerging island several hundred feet long. “It’s really sad because this used to be a great lake. But if they don’t do something soon it’ll be gone.”

Lake Mead’s water level is currently at 1,087ft above sea level. There are two pipes, known as “straws”, that take water from it to Las Vegas.

An aerial view of Lake Las Vegas (GETTY IMAGES)

The first extracts water at an elevation of 1,050ft and is likely to be sucking at air, rather than water, soon. The second straw is at 1,000ft.

Lake Mead is expected to fall another 20ft towards that critical point by the end of this year.

Beneath the ground a mammoth effort is already under way to complete a new, lower straw which will be able to draw the last of the water from the lake.

But it is a painfully slow process as a giant drill the size of two football pitches advances at a rate of one inch per day.

That rescue project is costing $817 million and is currently expected to be complete by late 2015, but it is not viewed as a long-term solution.

Las Vegas also wants to build a separate $15.5 billion pipeline that would pump 27 billion gallons of groundwater a year from an aquifer 260 miles away in rural Nevada.

But a judge has refused permission after environmentalists sued on the basis that it would adversely affect 5,500 acres of meadows, 33 miles of trout streams, and 130,000 acres of habitat used by sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn, an antelope-like creature that is endangered in the region. The court heard that 25 species of Great Basin springsnails would be pushed toward extinction.

Rob Mrowka, a Las Vegas-based scientist at the Centre for Biological Diversity, which brought the legal case against the pipeline, said: “It’s a really dumb-headed proposition. It would provide a false sense of security that there’s plenty of water and it would delay the inevitable decisions that have to be taken about water conservation and restricting growth.

“The drought is like a slow spreading cancer across the desert. It’s not like a tornado or a tsunami, bang. The effects are playing out over decades. And as the water situation becomes more dire we are going to start having to talk about the removal of people (from Las Vegas).”

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