Wildfires and water shortages have become part of the tragic reality of life in the American West. New York City isn’t used to smelling wildfire smoke, so this year’s wildfire season is already proving to be quite historically severe. Once again, we must ask – When will we finally treat climate change like the existential crisis that it truly is?
Also, we’re returning closer to home to understand why the ill-fated attempt to expand the Las Vegas Metro Area into Lincoln County remains relevant in light of the current controversies over water resources and Southwestern suburban sprawl.
Since the huge wildfires are again making headline news, here’s a timely PSA on why climate change action may be the most important infrastructure investment we make.
Every summer, we see the news on the wildfires spreading throughout the west. But in recent days, a bizarre twist emerged: wildfire smoke drifting as far east as New York City, Washington D.C, and North Carolina to make the sky hazier out there. Now that these increasingly severe wildfires are affecting both ends of the North American continent, will we finally see more climate action?
We already have evidence proving that climate change contributes to these more severe wildfire seasons, just as we have evidence proving that climate change plays a huge role in our current “mega-drought” that increasingly feels like permanent aridification. We’ve known of the dangers of climate change for decades, yet far too many policymakers have failed to enact enough change to the fossil fuel policies that fuel this crisis we live in.
Of course, we must invest more in mitigation and relief programs in order to better prepare for the onslaught of turbocharged wildfires and the regional water shortages that are quickly becoming our “new normal”. While the $5 billion worth of western water storage investment in the (now politically imperiled) “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework” can be put to good use out here, it’s just treatment for a symptom when we also need more comprehensive care for the greater disease of climate change. As we continue to await the Biden administration’s and Congressional Democrats’ full infrastructure plan, here’s another timely reminder that we’re long overdue for infrastructure investment and overhaul that both adapts to this alarming “new normal” and is proactive in giving future generations of humans a real shot at survival.
Speaking of infrastructure, let’s return to St. George. Do they really need a pipeline to Lake Powell?
As we noted last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will probably declare a “Tier One Shortage” at Lake Mead next month. Throughout the Colorado River Basin, the water shortage is already so severe that Reclamation is drawing water from the Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo Reservoirs in order to protect hydroelectric production at the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell. Indirectly, this also has the effect of protecting continuing delivery of Colorado River water from Lake Powell downstream to Lake Mead.
So problem solved? Not so much – This diversion of water from Upper Basin reservoirs is just one mitigation measure, and other regional Colorado River water authorities, environmentalists, and community advocates continue to worry that Utah may use this as another excuse to go ahead with its proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. As we noted last month, the State of Utah continues to demand a 140 mile long pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George, and Utah officials claim that this is just “exercising its full water rights” despite Lake Powell’s overall water shortage.
Utah state and several St. George local officials claim that this pipeline is “critical infrastructure”, but all we have to do is look at St. George’s urban footprint to see how the math doesn’t really add up here. For years, St. George’s municipal water system has offered cheap water to consumers without enacting or enforcing much of any water conservation rules. St. George averages about eight inches of annual rainfall, nearly double that of Las Vegas, yet St. George appears to be facing a more immediate water crunch than Las Vegas.
It’s not that hard to figure out why: Washington County, Utah, currently uses every acre foot of their water to sustain under six people per year, which is a little less than Clark County, Nevada, using every acre foot of our water to sustain about eight people per year. St. George almost certainly has more wiggle room as the result of extra rainfall and room for improvement on conservation. Washington County recently began to enact stricter conservation rules… And if they continue to redesign their water use policies to better match regional water supply, we will likely get a better sense of how “critical” that Lake Powell Pipeline plan truly is.
Now, let’s return to Nevada. More specifically, let’s examine that one golf course “in the middle of nowhere” and why it remains “in the middle of nowhere”.
Nowadays whenever one evokes the name Harvey Whittemore, one recalls the extensive trail of corruption and a wide net of “political influence” that once stretched all the way from then U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D) to then U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) and many more Nevada politicians from both major parties. Harvey Whittemore may now be most notorious for “straw donors” and hidden assets, but he was once hailed for a certain asset that he and others proudly proclaimed to be the next frontier in Southern Nevada development.
Once upon a time (as in – 2006), Coyote Springs was marketed as Southern Nevada’s newest desert oasis, complete with plans for a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, a solar thermal power plant, and residential development to house 200,000+ people. However Coyote Springs is some 50 miles away from Las Vegas, and state water regulators eventually ruled in 2020 that the basin that Coyote Springs lies in lacks sufficient local groundwater resources to support that much development.
Back then, the justification of Coyote Springs was the same justification used for all other new suburban and exurban development in the region: “Growth begets growth.” But as we’ve hinted before, “growth begets growth” is just the urban planning version of “voodoo economics“. When we actually try to do the math, the numbers don’t really add up in any realistic way.
We don’t need any far-fetched conspiracy theories to explain the demise of Coyote Springs. We just need to do the math.
Because Coyote Springs is part of a larger story of political corruption and environmental degradation that just so happens to involve Harry Reid and several more “Las Vegas power players”, there’s never any shortage of wildly imaginative conspiracy theories about its gradual demise. But as we noted above, there’s a much simpler and far more fact-based explanation of why the proposed exurban development never really got off the ground, save for that one Jack Nicklaus designed golf course that eventually gained infamy as “that golf course in the middle of nowhere”.
Pre-“Great Recession“, “exotic financing” was the norm. Financial companies increasingly consolidated through mergers and acquisitions, and they managed to obtain both retail consumer banks and investment institutions thanks to the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had forbidden retail banks from using depositors’ money to finance investment activities that could risk the wholesale loss of the depositors’ money. The growth of consumer housing debt fueled the mirage of widespread “prosperity” in the 2000s, but it really just masked the uglier reality of banks misleading homebuyers into unsustainable debt to maintain that illusion of “prosperity” while simultaneously inflating real estate prices far beyond what would have otherwise been fair market value, as well as selling “investment opportunities” like “mortgage backed securities” and “collateralized debt obligations” that were rooted in this unsustainable housing debt.
Even now, Southern Nevada still has leftover scars from “The Great Recession” and its immediate aftermath. We have an urgent need for affordable housing, continuing demand for homes right here in the Las Vegas Valley, and plenty of land and opportunities for infill development right here in the valley. Once we factor all of this in, the notion of a 200,000+ strong exurb with ample golf course adjacent McMansions that’s some 58 miles away from the center of the Las Vegas Strip makes even less sense.
Just like COVID-19 denialists falsely claim that proactive public health protection “hurts the economy”, “growth begets growth” enthusiasts falsely claim that exurban sprawl developments like Coyote Springs “help the economy”. Coyote Springs first launched during the peak of the 2000s housing bubble, when McMansions were deceptively “affordable” thanks to hefty mortgages, and when real estate speculation allowed for a false sense of “prosperity”. But now that we can clearly see the wreckage of the past two recessions, we can also clearly see how environmental sustainability also makes economic sense because there’s only so much appeal for new development that’s far from most work opportunities
Harvey Whittemore’s master plan for Coyote Springs may now be gathering dust, but there’s another plan for new suburban and exurban development that’s still gathering steam. Once again, we must ask: Where’s the water?
For decades real estate developers, regional politicians, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) tended to stay on the same page in preaching the gospel of “growth begets growth”. But once “The Great Recession” hit, Harvey Whittemore’s house of cards began to collapse, Southern Nevada’s real estate market suffered the most severe market correction of our lifetimes, and SNWA had to contend with limited groundwater resources alongside requirements to maintain the region’s water supply, the calculus changed… Or perhaps more accurately, they actually did the math for a change.
Even as Whittemore’s successor company sues to try to revive its Coyote Springs fortune, they must still contend with the basic economic concept of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, a certain “Law of Gertrude Stein” (aka – “there’s no there there”), and the basic matter of the lack of available water to sustain this kind of development. Yet even Nevada and Clark County regulatory authorities now recognize the harsh reality of Coyote Springs, they’re now pursuing federal legislation to expand the Las Vegas Metropolitan Region’s footprint by over 30,000 acres.
As we noted a month ago, the best case scenario probably entails a mere 50,000 acre feet of leftover “buffer water” if the Southern Nevada Economic Development Conservation Act becomes law, those 30,000+ acres of current federal public lands transform into new suburban/exurban development along the I-15 corridor, the UNLV CBER projection of 820,000 new Clark County residents comes to fruition, and we somehow avoid future cuts to our Colorado River water allotment. Notice how the economics of “growth begets growth” no longer looks all that sound once we factor in real world economics and our actual environmental reality?
While Nevada civic leaders have plenty of justifiable reasons to object to Utah’s proposed pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George that could very well just become another form of subsidizing water waste, we must also look at our own “fuzzy math” surrounding this plan to expand the Las Vegas Metro Area towards the California state line and Moapa. Just as we’ve had to learn the hard way that the math on Coyote Springs just didn’t add up, we need to check the numbers (especially on our water supply) here as well.
Yes, we finally got some rain. No, this doesn’t mean that our water, wildfire, and larger climate crises are “over”.
Amid dangerous drought conditions, we’re inviting all Utahns — regardless of religious affiliation — to join us this weekend in collective and humble prayer for rain.
— Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox (@GovCox) June 3, 2021
Early last month, Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R) rolled out an interesting approach to the western water shortage crisis: “Amid dangerous drought conditions, we’re inviting all Utahns — regardless of religious affiliation — to join us this weekend in collective and humble prayer for rain.” His “pray for rain” strategy was mocked throughout the internet, but is Cox getting the last laugh? The American West has finally been getting some much needed precipitation this month, including 1.7 inches of rain here in Las Vegas (as of yesterday).
While the rain certainly helps, this is no long-term solution. As of yesterday, Lake Mead’s water level sat just below 1,068 feet. Even if the rain continues at this pace for the rest of the summer, that still won’t be enough for Reclamation to cancel its plan to declare a “Tier One Shortage” next month. Even if the rain continues at this pace for the rest of the summer, we’ll remain well below the 1,085 level Lake Mead sat at this time last year, and we’ll remain far below the full pool level at 1,229.
To bring this all full circle, California has begun to reckon with the painful reality that building massive suburban communities in naturally wildfire prone spaces means that many thousands of people have essentially been sentenced to indefinite fear of the next major wildfire reaching their neighborhood. Just as urban planners are beginning to factor in wildfire risk and climate change overall into new sustainable development plans, we must also factor in water availability and the simple reality that we live in a naturally arid region.
As the wildfires continue, and as the water shortages continue, we have ongoing reminders of how climate change moves us towards a “new normal” with greater risks. We can’t keep growing if everything goes up in flames, and we can’t keep growing if we run out of water. If we want a better economic future, we need to look around us and factor our environmental reality into our plans.