Las Vegas tourists gaze at the amusement of fountains shooting up 500ft outside of the Bellagio. Couples engage in the romantic scene of gondola rides around the Venetian-themed swimming pools. In the mornings, thousands of sprinklers go off to keep golf courses looking admirable in the desert. What most people may not realize is that America’s most decadent destination has been going through a drought for the past 14 years.

Let’s begin with the past. The Hoover Dam, which is the biggest civil engineering project in the United States, was constructed to tame the Colorado River, provide electricity, and create Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country. The last time Lake Mead was close to being full was in 1983. However, it is now below 40 percent capacity.

The 2 million residents of Sin City and the amenities for a wild getaway depend on Lake Mead for more than 90 percent of its water. Over the years, the lake has slowly drained about four trillion gallons of water. It looks as if someone has pulled a giant plug from it. Around the edges is a strip of bleach rock that is locally known as “bath tub ring” that shows where the water level used to be.

las vegas water supply

Lake Mead’s current water level is 1,087ft above sea level. There are two massive pipes known as “straws” that take water from it to Las Vegas. Sooner rather than later, the first straw that extracts water from an elevation of 1,050ft will be sucking at air, rather than water.

“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.”

It is located 25 miles outside of the city and Barnett predicts it may be a “dead pool” that provides no water by about 2036. It is expected that the water from Lake Mead will fall another 20ft by the end of this year.

las vegas water lake mead

The Las Vegas water authorities are putting their cards on the table by completing an $800 million project nicknamed “the third straw,” that will provide a newer and deeper outlet to suck water away into the pipelines if the lake drops even further. However, this is not a long-term solution.

Another option Las Vegas wants to apply is building a separate $15.5 billion pipeline that would pump 27 billion gallons of groundwater a year from an aquifer about 260 miles away. However, environmentalists have already filed suit against this proposal because this pipeline would affect 5,500 acres of meadows, 33 miles of trout streams and 130,000 acres of habitat used by various wildlife.

Rob Mrowka, who is a Las Vegas-based scientist at the Centre for Biological Diversity, and is against the pipeline proposition says “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.”

Mrowka compared the drought to cancer and that is slowly spreading across the desert. “It’s not like a tornado or a tsunami, bang.” On the other hand, environmentalists have admitted that the glitzy hotels on the Strip have been making big strides towards conserving water. Water from sinks and showers in hotels is recycled. Add restaurants to that mix because they have stopped serving glasses of water unless requested to do so.

Here’s a fun fact not everyone may know. The Bellagio fountain is filled from an underground lake on the hotel’s land, not Lake Mead, and it is undrinkable anyway. We cannot blame this crisis on the residents of Las Vegas. Canals from Arizona and California also drain a lot of water from Lake Mead. Las Vegas also has a strong trend in “xeriscaping” which is garden landscaping with rocks and desert shrubs and no irrigation water. This drought crisis has been going on long enough. Hopefully this “third straw” is the last straw.

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