Friday, February 07, 2003

Spahn and Sain and pray for rain: The drought may be the underreported story of 2003. Its consequences affect much more than the Southwest, which has been buffered for several years by the ability to use lakes Mead and Powell to store Colorado River water and runoff from the minuscule rain and snow we've experienced. The Imperial Valley meltdown has gotten some ink in recent weeks, but that's deflected attention from the bigger story.

It seems that the current El Nino may not provide the relief everyone had hoped for. In a sobering meeting with Review-Journal editors on Wednesday, Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy noted that the jet stream had split, directing rain north and south of its usual destinations and leaving "a doughnut" over the Southwest. So what the Arizona Republic calls the worst drought in 1,400 years shows no sign of abating. (Get the Republic's full coverage here.

Mulroy said that, unless California, Nevada and Arizona have an extremely wet February and March -- or are drenched next winter -- the drought will all-but-scuttle the deals her district has made that would have locked up water supplies for the Las Vegas area for the next 50 years. By January 2005, building permits may be denied; homeowners may not be allowed to install or replace grass in their lawns; and even such tourist attractions as the Bellagio fountains (made famous most recently in the new version of Oceans Eleven) may be shut off. This would be a huge blow to Las Vegas.

While market forces will play a small role in the measures the district is implementing to combat the drought -- water rates will go up -- and a major educational effort to encourage residents to replace their grass with drought-resistant landscaping is under way, a lot of the new initiatives will be of the command-and-control variety: tougher penalties (fines and citations) for people who water outdoors during the hottest portions of the day. Mulroy confessed that the worst violators of these rules are government agencies (particularly the Clark County School District), who face little disincentive from running the sprinklers wide open at 2 p.m. on a 110-degree day. If the agencies get fined, they just pass the costs along to taxpayers. I suggested incarcerating the offenders and their bosses. She laughed ... after pausing a moment. Hmmm.

Per-capita, Las Vegans use 35 percent more water than residents of Phoenix ... and most of that "excess" is the result of runoff from lawn-watering that runs down the streets. "For some reason," she said, "people who move to Phoenix have embraced living in the desert, but people who move to Las Vegas haven't."

My thoughts on that: 1) The Sonora Desert is quite pretty; the Mojave is butt-ugly, and people want their surroundings to look nice; and 2) I haven't checked the statistics, but it's my gut feeling that a disproportionate share of Las Vegas transplants come from California, where people are accustomed to lawns that are artificially irrigated. I'm guessing Phoenix draws transplants from more diverse surroundings (some of those snowbird must be Cubs fans?) who had their lawns watered by Mother Nature and are perfectly comfortable adopting a different style of landscaping once they began living in a place where it rarely rains.

My buddy in the blogosphere Geitner Simmons has been tracking the effects of the drought in his backyard of Nebraska and elsewhere. His stuff's worth checking out. Stay tuned.

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