The Picture of Madness

The New Normal

The American southwest has a problem that most residents prefer to avoid. The region is getting pistol-whipped by climate change, a deadly combination of severe heatwaves and megadrought.  Las Vegas may be the area's poster boy.

Las Vegas’s population is booming and the city is sprawling into the surrounding desert. The extra concrete adds to the sizzle. On hot days, the highways and roads are littered with broken-down automobiles – commuter cars, ambulances, delivery trucks and buses that overheat as they made their way to and from the city-center.

“Nevada’s climate is changing,” the Nevada government’s Climate Initiative website reports. “In fact, Nevadans say, they are already noticing and impacted by these changes. Climate change has come home.”

The changes are particularly pronounced in Sin City and its surrounding areas, which is warming faster than almost anywhere else in the US. Heatwaves are not only getting hotter, they are also becoming more frequent. Summer weather is increasingly encroaching on spring, with less and less room for relief.

The increasing intensity hasn’t gone unnoticed among workers who have to brave the dangerous conditions, but “no one in the valley is allowed to talk,” Jeff, a valet and porter said. He declined to give his last name out of fear of retribution from his employer, a hotel off the strip.

Going From Bad to Worse

Even with the increasingly intense conditions, the population is growing. Numbers of residents increased by more than 64% between 2000 and 2018 in the county. Officials expect that numbers will continue to grow, projecting that in the next 40 years close to 3.2 million people will call the area home—an increase of nearly 40%.

Expecting to run out of space, a new county lands bill has petitioned the federal government for more acreage, pulling roughly 30,000 acres from public lands in the surrounding desert.

Meanwhile, the construction continues. Housing developments in various stages of completion are on full display at the fringes of the city, and even on the hottest days, workers brave the elements to complete them.

As If Heatwaves and Protracted Drought Weren't Enough

Las Vegas is an electricity pig. From its garish lighting to its air-conditioned hotels and casinos, the city couldn't exist without electricity. Most of it comes from fossil fuel - natural gas, coal and oil - generating plants. But, as we saw in the big heatwaves that hit Texas in recent years, thermal electricity plants require plenty of water for cooling. When the water runs out, the plant shuts down. When the plant shuts down, it takes down air conditioning systems. When the air conditioning goes down in the middle of a severe heatwave a lot of people are suddenly in a lot of trouble.

Las Vegas gets most of its water from the Colorado River which supplies water to 40-million Americans and a large chunk of America's agricultural producers. Two dams, the Hoover and the Glen Canyon, have created huge reservoirs - Lake Mead and Lake Powell.  Those reservoirs are now down to 30 per cent capacity. If the lakes go much lower authorities warn the dams may lose their ability to generate electricity.

Now you might think that a region that faces severe heatwaves of increasing frequency, intensity and duration plus the prospect of megadrought plus water insecurity and an electrical system of uncertain reliability; a region that has grown by 64 per cent over the past two decades and plans to expand by an additional 40 per cent over the next 40 years might think this projected growth the very picture of madness.  But that's not the way they think in Vegas - or pretty much anywhere else in the southwest either.

Vegas won't be the first victim of Colorado River water rationing.

Based on the pecking order from past negotiations, Arizona will have the biggest reductions in allocation from Lake Mead while California won’t face restrictions until the reservoir drops below 1,045 feet. The agreement dictates that Arizona will have one-third of its water supply from the reservoir cut, Ian James reported for AZ Central. Farmers will be among the most impacted, according to the state’s drought plan, but they will be allowed to use groundwater resources to compensate to some extent.

As a result of the preemptive drought planning, states have already prepared for the inevitable point when they will have to endure such cuts, said Koebele. “The basin has become increasingly collaborative over time, and people are thinking about it as, ‘It’s not if this happens, it’s when it happens and how do we best handle it.’”

The imminent resource crunch is just the beginning of the problems for the millions of people in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico who depend on Lake Mead and the Colorado River for their water.

Rising global temperatures are expected to bring more frequent and more intense droughts to the Southwest, according to the latest National Climate Assessment, which was authored by 13 US federal agencies in 2018. Climate change is also increasing the likelihood of long-term megadroughts like the one we are seeing now.

How bad is it really? Arizona and Mexico are now exploring a proposal to set up a desalination plant to bring water to their worst affected areas.


  1. And then there's this angle ...

    1. They don't have a monopoly on corruption and lunacy, NPoV.

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