Gag me with a high rise

Posted on | December 1, 2009 | 6 Comments

An early-evening view of the CityCenter, from the rooftop of the Marriott.

Las Vegas City Center. Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times. Click on the image to be taken to the story.

AS the US heads to Copenhagen without any clear plan to combat the effects of climate change on water, one of the areas predicted to be worst hit by global warming, Las Vegas, Nevada, is opening “CityCenter.”

In a preview so unctuous that it would embarrass an ad agency, the Los Angeles Times travel section writes, “Even in Las Vegas, a town not given to architectural subtleties, CityCenter looms large. The 67-acre, $8.5-billion, 18-million-square-foot ‘city within a city’ combines size and flourish with environmental consciousness.”


Leaving aside the wisdom of building a metropolis where it’s already so hot that outdoor plazas need cattle misters, Las Vegas is running out of water and its existing reserves are shrinking. Rather, it built its latest playground on the assurance from its politicians and water-planners that it could also construct a vast pipeline to de-water the fragile aquifer underlying much of the Great Basin, a 200,000 square mile region encompassing all of Nevada, half of Utah and slices of Oregon and California.GB-Definition-Map

The sheer cynicism and chutzpah of the plan have made headlines for the 20 years since Las Vegas applied for an unprecedented block of water rights. There is not a credible hydrologist outside of the hire of Las Vegas who does not believe that the Las Vegas pumps, if allowed, will dramatically compound steadily occurring desiccation of the region caused by climate change.

What’s worse, hydrating the super-arid Las Vegas will drive damage north. In short, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. The cost will be the destruction of this country’s most beautiful and largely unperturbed deserts, most of it federally-owned public land, a region unique in the world, only approximated thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia before the cradle of civilization pumped the place dry.

If this is to happen, then it is time that Las Vegas water manager, Patricia Mulroy, its leading Congressional delegate Senator Harry Reid, environmentalists such as the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Barry Nelson (who on behalf of the NRDC has accepted funds from Mulroy’s Southern Nevada Water Authority while steadfastly pleading ignorance about the Las Vegas pipeline plan) and Sierra Club’s Carl Pope (who privately says the pipeline plan is bad, but relies on Senator Reid for political clout) cut the crap. Enough of their lies and prevarication.

They need to own what they’re doing, which is trading two national parks — Death Valley and the Great Basin, countless endangered species, hundreds of thousands of square miles — for Las Vegas and the profit of the handful of players who run the place.

The challenge posed by Las Vegas is bigger than the ever-swelling city, bigger even than the Great Basin. It’s nationwide. How is the US to address climate change, or take the Senate Majority leader, the NRDC, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, any of the participants seriously about global warming when their actions so completely belie their words?

As is so often the case, they are aided and abetted by a magazine rack full of greasy celebrities. Add to the list of public figures who deserve only skepticism and contempt are eco-stars who play Vegas. That’s you Bill Maher. That’s you every “terroir”-spouting celebrity chef with a clip joint in Southern Nevada. It’s long been Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman et al, but you’re beyond embarrassment, you’re living embodiments of America post-shame.

Copenhagen is upon us. The bottom line on climate change is: We can’t expect our leaders to take a stand unless we do. Those who back the unfettered expansion of Las Vegas must stand up and say: This is what we are and what we are doing and we acknowledge it. Forget sensible development. Screw the Great Basin, its public lands, its people, flora and fauna. We trade all that for conventions and gambling.

Or if they have doubts about it, they must say openly: This is where absurdity meets obscenity. We will not take their dollars while looking the other way. We need to find a way to slow growth in Vegas while preserving the livelihoods of its current residents, but stop putting millions more people so far from tenable water supplies.

Climate change cannot be checked with greed and lies. It can only be exaggerated and disaster accelerated. Our politicians cannot bring meaningful reform while in the pockets of craven developers and the gaming lobby. The threadbare news media must remain vigilant and critical. Nobody, anywhere, should for a second be indulged while they describe Las Vegas as “environmentally conscious,” unless they mean they’re environmentally conscious but have elected to deny impending disaster because looking the other way is too damn profitable or prickly.


6 Responses to “Gag me with a high rise”

  1. Ron Parry
    December 1st, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Terrific article. This project is obscene. It seems likely that a confrontation between Las Vegas and Reality is not far off.

  2. Richard Spotts
    December 1st, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Excellent article! It is accurate, blunt, and insightful. Unfortunately, this insanity is not limited to Las Vegas’ shameless boosters. It is common elsewhere in the arid West. It boils down to the dangerous combination of worship of the Almighty Dollar and economic dependence on continued, limitless growth without facing the eventual consequences. While this is also the ideology of a malignant tumor, our “leaders” don’t seem to notice or care. When the day of reckoning arrives, this will be a massive demonstration of social Darwinism. Of course, the people harmed will only have themselves to blame because they kept their “leaders” in power and refused to see the writing on the wall.

    December 6th, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    While Las Vegas chose to promote itself as the symbol of lavishness, ostentatious, opulence, sinful display of hedonism it is NOT the only city in the arid southwest to currently be living well beyond its ability to be sustainable.

    While not perceived to mimic Las Vegas, the southwest towns of St George and Cedar City find themselves in dire need of additional water both hoping to tap into that pond called Lake Powell, complete with their own pipeline to secure their future.

    One need only follow the route of the Colorado River and note the unprecedented growth along its banks to quickly conclude this water source is tapped well beyond its ability to provide long term sustainable water.

    With more than 200 golf courses most requiring more than a million gallons per day especially in the summer to present lush “green” environment to its golfers, metro-Phoenix has little cause to point its finger at Las Vegas, though it routinely does.

    Those of us living in the arid southwest have chosen not to heed even one lesson the passing legacy ancient civilizations left for us. With water deemed a commodity, it will be available only to those with sufficient means to afford it.

    Name me a town in the arid southwest and I can find a project, perhaps not as grandiose as CityCenter in Las Vegas, but one whose impact in that region may be considered equally illogical.


  4. EmilyGreen
    December 6th, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    From Jane Feldman, Energy Chair, Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, via e-mail:

    Consider this.
    A huge proportion of the water used in Las Vegas is on outdoor landscaping.
    The outdoor landscaping in City Center is miniscule. When the water per capita is calculated for City Center, it is tiny, tiny, tiny.

    There is a lot that City Center has done right.

    It’s compact, mixed use, on previously disturbed land, in the core of the metro area.
    It’s on public transportation lines.
    It’s LEED certified, for pete sake…!!!

    We need to be celebrating and shining spotlights on this development as the Way to Do It – in the desert and every urban area.

    Unless you launch a major national population control program, prohibiting certain climates/places as uninhabitable, including mandatory child limits, you have to accommodate people somewhere. City Center uses the best of both engineering and urban design principles, with stellar results. Give credit where credit is due.

  5. EmilyGreen
    December 6th, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    Jane, thank you for commenting. I am not criticizing LEED green building standards in this article (though I wish those standards paid more attention to water). The problem as I see it with celebrating CityCenter during Copenhagen is that this development, in addition to two decades of explosive growth and constant reinvention in Las Vegas, has all been predicated on the idea that it’s OK to sacrifice the Great Basin. That’s always been the back up plan behind the formation of the SNWA and the Nevada land bills. Yet if you look at a map at where the most intense effects of climate change will be felt, then throwing cold desert resources at explosive growth in the Mojave looks insane. It’s the elephant in the living room. – Thanks again for writing. -Emily

  6. spring snail
    January 21st, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    Other options beside a pipeline from a quickly overdrafted Snake Valley aquifer would be rooftop rainwater harvesting and filtration (sand barrels, charcoal, etc…) to collect rainwater in underground cisterns prior to evaporation from hardpan surfaces or losses to evapotranspiration on its journey down the Las Vegas Wash. Direct capture of rooftop rainwater would also reduce the runoff that leads to flash flooding in summer. This would also provide jobs and help residents gain independence in controlling their own water. The average amount harvested from one inch of rain is 600 gallons per 1,000 square feet of rooftop, that would give Las Vegas 2,100 per year on their 3.5 inch yearly average.

    The rooftop rainwater harvesting systems would be permanant fixtures outside of changing the filter medium periodically, whereas the pipeline to nowhere would give about 10 years maximum before the aquifer was overdrafted and the multimillion dollar pipeline useless. The SNWA already lost 600,000 dollars in 2009 on their sheep ranch adventures up in Spring Valley, their excuse for monitoring the water levels in hopes they can extract the maximum amount before disaster hits. The claim by Gen. “Pipeline Pat” Mulroy of drought emergency is covering their true intent of pushing suburban sprawl further out into the desert, with the promise of “free water for all”. Harvey Whittemore’s team of developers at Coyote Springs are glad that Harry Reid is tucked safely in their pockets, how convenient that they happen to be initial funders of the pipeline and also live right alongside the route. Future benefits for anyone? Another coincidence that Harry Reid’s son also works for Whittemore? When the Democrats act like Republicans, we’re all in real trouble!!

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