Shelf Life

Excerpt: The Big Thirst

Katharine Crnko Apr 12, 2011

The following excerpt is from The Big Thirst. Learn more about the book and listen an interview with author Charles Fishman.

Could Las Vegas Be The Most Water-Smart City in the U.S.? Las Vegas?

If you start at the southern end of the Strip in Las Vegas, the first resort you come to is Mandalay Bay, on the left as you walk north. Mandalay Bay’s main entrance is flanked by waterfalls cascading over boulders and cliffs into a tropical lagoon. Inside, the hotel is home to a 1.6-million-gallon slice of the Pacific Ocean, the Shark Reef Aquarium, which includes clear tunnels that allow you to walk among the hundred resident sharks. Mandalay Bay is also known for a pool area designed like a beach, with five pools, set among eleven acres of what the hotel describes as “real sand”–5 million pounds of it.

Just a block north from Mandalay Bay, you come upon a half-size version of the Statue of Liberty, standing on her pedestal in the water of New York harbor. Right next to Lady Liberty floats a New York City fireboat, with five jets of water arcing festively into the Hudson River twenty-four hours a day. Just beyond the fireboat, you are alongside a miniature version of the Brooklyn Bridge, which naturally spans the East River.

One casino farther along is the brand-new CityCenter complex, which includes the Aria hotel. Although you can’t quite see it from the sidewalk, the Aria’s main entrance is anchored by not one but two fountains, both from the world-renowned water design firm WET. One of the fountains is a curving wall of water almost as long as a football field, that flanks the hotel’s entrance. Waves of water pour over the top ledge of the twenty-four-foot-tall wall, and are slowed and shaped by tiny squares of stone along the wall’s surface. Sometimes torrents cascade over the top, sometimes just modest pulses. Visitors stand transfixed by the waves coursing along the face of the wall, as if watching waves break onto a beach. In a Mojave Desert town where there are seventy-two days a year when it’s 100 degrees or hotter, but just nineteen days a year when it rains, the Aria’s sweeping horizontal fountain creates the mood of a Zen water garden at the entrance to a four-thousand-room casino hotel.

In the same block as CityCenter is the Bellagio, a five-star luxury hotel that is as famous for its fountain as for its rooms, its service, and its cuisine. The Fountains of Bellagio are a Vegas attraction all their own, drawing thousands of spectators each night, who surround a man-made lake of 8.5 acres in which the fountain sits. The lake holds 22 million gallons of water, and the fountain is composed of 1,214 jets, shooters, and fan sprayers, all computer-controlled to perform in tight coordination with music, from show tunes to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The fountain creates rippling curtains of water that soar up 200, 300, even 400 feet high. Each night, starting at 8 p.m., the fountain gives four absolutely captivating performances an hour — you can stand on the sidewalk, in a town where not a single month averages even one inch of rain, and watch a fountain that, at any given moment, lofts 17,000 gallons of water into the air. The fountain is matched inside the Bellagio by an 1,800-seat theater whose stage is a tank of 2 million gallons of water, where each night acrobats from Cirque du Soleil perform a water opera called O (for the French word for water, eau).

And that’s just the beginning, just the first third of a “water walk” up the Vegas Strip. In the next block is the Mirage, which has a signature volcano out front that erupts on the hour every night and sits in the middle of a lagoon. Deep inside the Mirage is a dolphin habitat — yes, another aquarium inside a casino — home to what the hotel calls “a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins,” eight in all, including a couple born in captivity right on the Strip, all now living in a 2.5-million-gallon seawater habitat.

Across the street from the Mirage is the Venetian — a hotel built around the theme of Venice’s canals. Right in front is the Venetian’s lagoon, where you can ride in a gondola poled by a singing gondolier in Italian costume.

Let’s pause just a moment and take stock.

In the space of a two-mile walk through the desert, and only crossing the street once, we’ve encountered three lagoons, a set of tropical waterfalls, the shark-infested Pacific, the dolphin-dappled Atlantic, an aquatic theater with a 2-million-gallon stage, a water-spouting fireboat, a ninety-yard-long wall of pulsing waves, the canals of Venice, and what was until 2009 the largest fountain in the world.

And without noticing, we walked right by what may be the only successful artificial rainstorm in the United States (inside the shops at the Planet Hollywood hotel). And we can’t forget the sexy water — this stretch of vacation fantasyland also includes five adults-only topless swimming pools, each with a suggestive name, including Venus at Caesars Palace, Bare at the Mirage, and Liquid at the Aria.

Some people think that the obsession in Las Vegas is money — or, more precisely, easy money.

Las Vegas itself wants the obsession in Las Vegas to be regret-free sin (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”).

But the real obsession in Vegas is water — displaying it, unfurling it, playing with it, flaunting it.

Say what you will about Vegas, about the shows and the showgirls, about the slot machines at the airport gates and the craps tables that never close and the images of Donny and Marie Osmond plastered twenty stories high across the face of the Flamingo hotel — the most amazing thing may be that a hundred sharks and eight bottlenose dolphins live right on the Strip, and some of them are Nevada natives.

There is no two-mile stretch of ground anywhere in the United States that has such a density of water features, water attractions, and sheer water exuberance. Las Vegas, which can invest something as routine as breakfast with outlandish extravagance, has taken our most unassuming substance and unleashed it as the embodiment of glamour, mystery, power, and allure. In the way that only Las Vegas can, it has created a whole new category–ostentatious water.

The Las Vegas Strip is a demonstration of water imagination, of water mastery, and also of absolute water confidence.

It’s all the more remarkable because Las Vegas is the driest city in the United States. Of the 280 cities in the United States with at least 100,000 people, Las Vegas is No. 280 in precipitation and No. 280 in number of days each year that it rains. Las Vegas gets 4.49 inches of precipitation a year. And it rains or snows, on average, just nineteen days a year.

A metropolis with 2 million residents and 36 million visitors a year, Las Vegas gets ninety percent of its water from a single source, Lake Mead, the spectacular, man-made reservoir created on the Colorado River by Hoover Dam. When Lake Mead is full, it holds a sixty-year supply of water for Las Vegas.

But Las Vegas is legally allowed to take only a tiny sliver of Lake Mead water — 300,000 acre-feet a year, 98 billion gallons. All the water Las Vegas is allowed lowers the lake between two and three feet. Las Vegas’s allocation is about 4 percent of what everybody else gets to take from Lake Mead — 96 percent of the water people use from Lake Mead goes to either California or Arizona. And Las Vegas’s allocation is fixed in law, just as the allocations of California and Arizona are fixed — so the amount of water Las Vegas has access to hasn’t changed even as Las Vegas’s population has doubled, and doubled again, even as the city has added 100,000 new hotel rooms, along with fountains and waterfalls, swimming pools and shark tanks.

If you’re running the Las Vegas water system, it has been a harrowing twenty years, watching with a combination of fascination and queasiness as your desert city has grown so fast that, from 1990 to 2007, it added 60,000 new residents every single year, without adding any new sources of water for them.

Even according to Las Vegas’s most conservative water- use figures, 60,000 new people require 5.3 billion gallons of new water a year. In big-picture terms, between 1990 and 2009, Las Vegas nearly tripled in population.

What’s even scarier is that for the last ten years, the rainfall and snow-fall that everyone along the Colorado River had become accustomed to for the last century fell off dramatically. By 2010, Lake Mead was down to 41 percent of capacity–which is to say, the largest reservoir in America was more than half empty. A lake that is 110 miles long has lost a stunning 125 feet of water depth in just a decade. Forget how much drinking and irrigation water that is — it’s enough water to put the Strip, and every one of its hotels, at the bottom of a lake a half-mile deep.

It is just as easy to make fun of Las Vegas as it is to have fun there. Who builds the world’s largest fountain in the middle of the driest city in the country? Why visit a fake Eiffel Tower and a fake Brooklyn Bridge when it’s just as easy to visit the actual Eiffel Tower and the actual Brooklyn Bridge?

But that easy snickering ignores the most important fact. We love Las Vegas. The town gets 36 million visitors a year — 86 percent of whom are Americans; 10 percent of the country visits Vegas every year.

And so although you’d never know it on the Strip or in the new sub- divisions of the bedroom community of Henderson, Las Vegas doesn’t have water challenges or water troubles. Las Vegas has a water emergency. People are working on the emergency twenty-four hours a day, in fact, desperately trying to stave off what could become a catastrophic water crisis.

The first of Las Vegas’s two big water intakes — the huge pipes through which the city literally sucks its water out of Lake Mead — is just 38 feet from breaking the surface. A couple more dry years and Intake 1 could literally be sucking air. It’s normally safe under 125 feet or more of water.

With the fountains jetting and the waterfalls cascading and the gondoliers serenading, it would be easy to add an absolute water heedlessness to the sins of Vegas. As the water is literally disappearing into the sand, the main Las Vegas tourism Web site still opens to a picture of a gorgeous come-hither brunette, in front of a shimmering turquoise swimming pool, with the line “Welcome to Lake Dowhatyawanna.”

But as is often the case in Las Vegas, everything is not quite as it looks. Las Vegas may seem to be gambling away the last of its water currency without either concern or a plan. But in fact, Las Vegas is far more advanced in both water consciousness and water management than almost anywhere else in the country.

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