Thurston County had a chilly, rainy spring – until this past week, when warm sunny weather made people swoon. But just when the sun came out, a friend and I left for, of all places, Las Vegas.
Casinos were not on our itinerary. My friend had invited me to come with her to see the Red Rock Canyon, and explore the southern Nevada plant life near this garish city.
Words fail to describe the majesty of the Red Rock Canyon, and photos only hint at the experience of being in it. It is a lesson in geologic time, the tininess of a human lifespan, and the stunning variety of life on Earth.
The mountains are especially beautiful this time of year because the desert is still mostly green. And the wildflowers among the cactuses are a feast of discovery. As my friend and I hiked, our conversation shrank to a single refrain: “Oh, look at this!” It was a surprise to find such delicate plants in this harsh, hot place.
The next day we visited the 200-acre Clark County Wetland Park, because we were curious to see a wetland in such a dry place. The park turned out to be part of a much larger constructed wetland that diverts and absorbs water from a smallish river called the Las Vegas Wash, slowing its flow.
This wetland became necessary because a sewage treatment plant upstream empties Las Vegas’s highly treated wastewater into the river. Some combination of urban development and all that rushing water had eroded the river’s banks and carried an excess of sediment into Lake Mead.
Las Vegas is at the center of a huge shallow bowl of a valley tipped toward Lake Mead. Before settlers came, the valley was dotted with spring-fed oases, and braided with small streams. It was inhabited by Southern Paiute people also known as Nuwuvi, who, of course, had lived here for thousands of years.
But in the space of a hundred years, the springs and small streams mostly disappeared, the victims of overuse and development. In the 1970s, Las Vegas began tapping the Colorado River, which now provides 90 percent of its water. Today, the Southern Nevada Water Authority relies on wells for just 10 percent of the local supply. And the Las Vegas Wash is the last valley river.
The climate change forecast for this area is sobering. But on the local nightly newscast, a real estate agent was pleased to report that he’s selling homes to more new residents from back East and even Florida. The weather forecaster said there will likely be one more weekend this year for mountain skiing, and cheerily added, “In Las Vegas you can lie by the pool and go skiing on the same day! We have everything here.”
But if this valley runs out of water, it will have nothing.
The Colorado River’s flow has shrunk by a third from its historic level, and this year’s heavy rains will provide only a brief respite from its downward trend. The federal government has called on the states that draw from it to cut their use by 20-40 percent. The affected states have been unable to agree on which should make the biggest cuts. Seniority rights favor California, but equity in a time of climate change is at odds with those rights.
The negotiations are deadlocked, but Las Vegas County’s population continues to grow.
We will be grateful to come home.
The crisis of the Colorado River reminds us to see how rich rain makes us. As it soaks into our porous prairies and shaded woods and flows into rivers in our hills and mountain slopes, water makes us wealthy beyond measure.
Las Vegas reminds us of something else, too: It is a cautionary tale about generations of shortsightedness and unintended consequences. We may be subject to the same human failures of foresight too, if we’re not thoughtful about the distant future of our own beloved Puget Sound.
A warm sunny week in Thurston County is certainly a wonderful thing. It’s even more wonderful that it won’t be 99 degrees on Sunday, which is the forecast for Las Vegas.
Best of all, Thurston County will likely get a little more rain within a week.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com
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