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Problem Background Narrative

Page history last edited by Logan Kendle 11 years, 10 months ago

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History of Las Vegas     

Las Vegas resides on land on which the Paleo-Indians roamed as nomads over 10,000 years ago. The name "Las Vegas" (Spanish for the meadows) was given to the area by a Spanish settler in 1829. The area once existed with a spring fed creek creating an oasis in the desert which first attracted settlers.

     For a town known for its shows, gambling, and organized crime activities; it may come as a surprise to know that the land Las Vegas is on was first populated by members of the Mormon Church when they created a missionary fort and supply stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City; their Fort is abandoned a few years later when dissension rose between the leaders. In the 1860 the area became a large scale ranch that operated until 1902 when the rights to the land and water were sold to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. In 1864 Nevada is admitted to the Union as the 36th state. Many years later the State Land Act of 1885 is passed offering up sections of land in the state for $1.25 per acre. In early 1900 the Main Railway linking Los Angeles and Salt Lake City was completed making Las Vegas’ it’s halfway stopping point. This brings more commerce to the area and population growth. On May 15th, 1905 110 acres of land are auctioned off; this is the land that later became the city of Las Vegas.


     The first of the major economic boosts to Las Vegas came from the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1935. The construction brought in industry and workers creating much needed economic growth during the depression. In March of 1931, gambling was legalized by state legislature. With the Las Vegas valley’s isolated location, abundance of water, and cheap energy, it became a magnet for defense related industries during World War Two. After the war entertainment became the largest employer in the valley. Hotels, casinos, and resorts begin popping up in the city as investors realize the potential for profit in the valley. In 1959, the Nevada State Gaming Commission was created. By 1960, Las Vegas contained 22% of Nevada’s population all on 0.02% of Nevada’s land.        


     The mid-1980’s, the area saw unprecedented growth with annual population growth at 7% per year. The population doubled between 1985 and 1995. In 2000, Las Vegas was declared as the largest city in the United States founded in the 20th century.

     Nevada is an arid state in the southwestern part of the United States. It has a rural population of 268,591 people and an urban population of 2,431,960 people (Economic Research Service). The population has grown from 1,998,257 in 2000 to 2,700,551 in 2010; a 35.1% growth in 10 years according to the US Census Bureau. The state includes elevations ranging from mountain plateaus to the desert near Las Vegas. The average rainfall for the Las Vegas Valley is 4.2 inches per year. This small amount of rain makes water an important issue in the highly populated southern Nevada region. Las Vegas is also in a place of extreme climate variation. Temperatures have been as high as 120F and as low as -50F (WRCC). This harsh climate is an unavoidable reality in the region and must be considered in any long-term water management plans.

            Las Vegas depends primarily on the tourism industry, accounting for 70% of the valleys economy with its 37 million visitors per year (Las Vegas Review Journal.) Currently growth is stagnant in the valley. Las Vegas is one of the top 5 metropolitan areas in the US for foreclosure rates and vacant homes. Construction has slowed and housing values have declined significantly from this (Las Vegas Sun.)

            Las Vegas is among the fastest growing cities in the US. The cities growth in recent decades has further put an extreme demand on its main water source, their Colorado River allocation, from which the city receives 90% of its water (Columbia.edu.).  However, the city has done a lot to combat its aggressive use of water. Things like lawn watering days, gray water use, and communitywide restrictions and incentives have helped lower the per-capita daily household use by 21.3% from 2000 to 2009 (NYtimes.com.). Many however still feel more efficient water use is possible and must happen in order to solve the water crisis facing the region.


Climate and Environmental Setting

     Nevada is an arid state in the southwestern part of the United States. The state includes elevations ranging from mountain plateaus to the desert near Las Vegas. The average rainfall for the Las Vegas Valley is just 4.2 inches per year with over 300 days of no recorded rainfall per year. This small amount of rain makes water an important issue in the highly populated southern Nevada region. In the late summer months moist monsoonal like air can roll in from the south creating spectacular thunderstorms with massive lightning displays and fierce winds. These storms create an extreme potential for flash floods since the area's armored like desert ground is so dry and non porous. During the rest of the year rains coming from the pacific coast are normally blocked by the Sierra Nevada  and Spring mountains west of the valley. Winters are normally very mild with daily temperatures normally in the 60's. Spring and Fall are considered the ideal seasons in the area with comfortable temperatures for outdoor activitiesTemperatures variations in the region can be quite sharp with highs of 120F and as low as -50F (WRCC). Strong winds in the area are frequently experienced blowing dust and sand creating air quality problems for the city. The average temperature per decade has increased from 65.7 degrees when recording started in the 1940's to 66.6 in the 1970's to 69.9 degrees in the 2000's (NOAA). The rising average temperatures in the region will further exacerbate the water shortage in the region.



Nevada Water Law

     Nevada uses about 2.8 billion gallons of water per day (Strobel, 2000). Much of this goes to agriculture and public supply, leaving a somewhat surprisingly low amount of water used by industry and tourism. To understand how all of this water use is allotted, one must know Nevada water law is very complex and allows for citizen feedback as well as commercial development. The law is based on the “first in time – first in right” principal (National Science and Technology Center, Bureau of Land Management). This means that seniority is the one of the most important factors in the law. The most important single person in new Nevada water allocations is the State Engineer. He or she has legal authority over all of the state’s surface and ground water. The State Engineer’s job is to manage water in the state of Nevada, which is seen as public property. To do anything other than drill a domestic well a permit from the State Engineer is required (Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, 2011). When reviewing a request for permit, the State Engineer must consider the senior users’ rights and the “beneficial use” that the water would be put to. Things that are considered beneficial uses are: “commercial, construction, drilling, industrial, irrigation, milling, mining, municipal, power, recreation, stock watering, storage and wildlife (National Science and Technology Center, Bureau of Land Management, 2001).” If there are no conflicts with other existing users and there is a case for beneficial use then the request will be approved and there will be notifications of the upcoming new water allocation published in the newspapers for four weeks(Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources). It is at this time that the citizens of Nevada have the opportunity to voice their concerns. If there are no concerns or the concerns are adequately addressed, the proposed water use is allocated with a permit and the applicant pays a one-time filing fee. The permit holder then becomes one of the state’s present allocations. According to the principle of “first in time, first in right”, permit holders' water allocations are protected from any new requests that might interfere with their allotment. Once water is appropriated, it is considered property and can be bought and sold as property.

     So, Las Vegas' allocation from Lake Mead has already been allocated to various companies and institutions.  If another entity wanted to gain an allocation from the State Engineer, it would have to either attain the rights from the entity which currently holds the rights, or find an unused source of water somewhere other than the Colorado River. While this system is complex it makes understanding Las Vegas' water supply much easier than cities that can freely draw water from a river. In Las Vegas the water available is the water allocated with very few exceptions that include extra water for recycling water and returning to Lake Mead and a small number of supplemental water sources that account for only ten percent of Las Vegas' supply(Columbia.edu.). Las Vegas has very little water other than its present 300,000 acre foot allotment from Lake Mead.


Las Vegas Water Supply

      Lake Mead supplies the water for 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley, which includes the 7 water municipalities.  The remaining ten percent of water comes from groundwater in the area including 6,700 wells in the Las Vegas Valley.

The Colorado River system has been facing its worst drought in recorded history over the last eleven years (Las Vegas Sun). These drought conditions and lack of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains have had a significant impact on Lake Mead, which is currently only 1,124 feet deep as of April 29th, 2012 (Bureau of Reclamation.) If the water levels in the reservoir were to drop below 1,075 feet then Nevada and Arizona would be in a water shortage. In such case, water allocations to Arizona and Nevada will be decreased by a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the 7 states with allocation claims on the river. The plan entails who receives water by a priority list of federal, state, private, and Indian claims to water with a detailed list of exact individual allocations.

If the lake continues to drop below 1,050 feet the level will not be sufficient  to power the Hoover Dam’s turbines, which provide 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year of which Nevada receives 23.4%(Bureau of Reclamation), creating significant power shortages to Las Vegas. 

     The Southern Nevada Water Authority is currently building a new pipeline that would allow Lake Mead to continue feeding water to the city until the water level drops to 1,000 feet. The tunnel however has faced a long series of setbacks and in 2011 had to be completely rerouted. The largest concern until the tunnel is completed is to keep the level of Lake Mead at a safe usable level.  Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, states that, “if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble” (Columbia.edu.)


Las Vegas Water Usage

Landscape watering needs account for 65 percent of the municipal water consumuse in Las Vegas (Las Vegas Review Journal). Many believe the Resorts and Casinos account for the massive water demand in the region but in fact only consume 3% of the valley’s water supply.

Las Vegas is currently seeking approval to pipe up to 126,000 acre-feet of groundwater from rural eastern Nevada (Brean, 2011).  This would result in water that was previously used for agriculture being used for domestic purposes.




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