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Making Waves — Nevada

March 11, 2024

This week’s column looks at NEVADA and the question is: How do local communities take action, when good ideas have negative consequences?

Nevada, the 7th largest state of the U.S., is situated almost entirely in the Great Basin region, a desert area to the east of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. This mountain range captures Pacific moisture as it heads eastward with the prevailing winds. The Great Basin is a temperate desert with hot summers and cold winters. There has always been life-sustaining water in this desert: several rivers large and small, springs, seeps, and reserves of groundwater; but, because it is a desert, even small changes in water availability have huge impacts. The West has drawn down its water resources throughout the recent decades of megadrought, leaving communities to make hard decisions about water use, energy generation, and expansion.

You have only to see Nevada’s big cities in their desert context, with unfettered growth, opulent cityscapes, and 24/7 bright lights to know that this scene, in the long run, is unsustainable. Human population growth in the modern desert west has been unchecked but cannot continue. Without water, there can be no life in the desert. Without energy, there can be no further development in towns and cities.

We see how energy generation is imperiled by drought, as waters in Lakes Powell and Mead drop and will soon be below the level of hydroelectric turbines. What is to replace it? With all this space, cloudless skies, sunny days, and low population densities (outside the sprawling megalopolis of Las Vegas), some see the expansive Great Basin region as an empty zone just perfect for huge solar installations.

Others ask, “Why put a huge solar farm in a wilderness area or nature preserve in the desert when there are so many rooftops and hardscapes available to attach panels to in the built environment?” The following podcast takes us to the front lines of protest over some proposed solar developments in Nevada’s desert and makes a good point about the solar energy benefits not even going to Nevadans, but for distribution and sale to southern California. A little on the radical side, this podcast gets high marks for production values and audio editing.
Podcast: 90 miles from Needles (Oct 11, 2022)
Season 1, Episode 19: Shannon Salter fights to save the desert [~42 mins]

Let’s now turn to water, increasingly and painfully being felt as the limiting factor, as demand outstrips supply. Many schemes to get additional water to the Las Vegas Valley have been proposed over the years, but most have been stopped by smaller communities or by courts because taking water beyond the carrying capacity of the land means that something – some community or some natural ecosystem – will be deprived of absolutely essential water.

In response, the city of Las Vegas has been a model for conservation and reduction of water use, by offering incentives to change residential landscapes, converting school playing fields to artificial turf, creating and enforcing local regulations on water use, and other efficiency measures. Las Vegas has managed a 26% reduction in water use since 2002 while adding 850,000 residents to the Las Vegas Valley. This is even without calculating the return of over 90% of their municipal wastewater – fully treated – to Lake Mead. If this topic interests you, learn more about the work of the Southern Nevada Water Authority by listening to this podcast, replete with quantitative data and policy tips:
Vegas TMI Podcast (March 23, 2022)
How the future of water looks in Las Vegas [26 mins]

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, or have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest Press 11-16-2022. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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