Farmers, bureaucrats, and water negotiators converged on Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, to fight over the future of the drought-stricken Southwest.
In mid-December, I drove to Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, to see its infamous bathtub ring. The bathtub, in this metaphor, is Lake Mead, on the border between Nevada and Arizona; the ring is a chalk-white coating of minerals that its receding waters have left behind. The Southwest, which includes the Colorado River Basin, has been in a protracted drought since 2000; climate change has made it worse. “You go to Los Angeles or Denver or Las Vegas, and it doesn’t seem like an emergency, compared to when a hurricane slams into Florida,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told me recently. “Our emergency is more akin to sea-level rise, something that takes decades to manifest, so it almost normalizes itself.” The bathtub ring may be the emergency’s most visible manifestation—the drought equivalent of Don Lemon in a rain slicker, weathering gale-force winds in a megastorm. It serves as a daily reminder of the hundred and fifty-eight feet of water that is no longer there. According to Bob Gripentog, one of the owners of the Lake Mead Marina, where swarms of ducks like to overwinter, the docks keep needing to be moved farther out as the lake’s level drops.
The day after my trip to the reservoir, the people responsible for addressing this emergency gathered at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, for the annual conference of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Colorado River Water Users Association. According to crwua, the Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states, thirty sovereign tribes, and Mexico, is known as “one of the most regulated rivers in the world”; the conference is where some of those regulations get hashed out. Passersby would have seen men in sports coats clustered around tables, discussing desalination; jargony meetings between bureaucrats, water engineers, and utilities managers; and an expo hall where salesmen pitched pipe systems to municipal officials. One group of engineers told me that they needed a spreadsheet to decode all the acronyms. But beneath the trade-conference technicalities flowed an undercurrent of panic. Panelists used words like “desperate” and “brutal” and “day of reckoning.” In the conference’s opening remarks, Brenda Burman, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, noted that the current drought is the worst the world has seen in twelve hundred years. There was a worse one twenty-five hundred years ago, she added, but that didn’t seem to cheer anyone up…
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