Days 8 and 9: Las Vegas, Boulder City and Hoover Dam

Day 8: Sunday, July 17

North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, NV

Leaving the grandiose expanse of open canyon country was no easy feat Sunday morning, especially as we knew our next stop, the indulgent metropolis of Las Vegas, would present us with a very different environment. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the geologic masterpiece of the powerful Colorado River, offered a quiet alternative to its touristy South Rim counterpart (which we will be visiting this Friday).

We had a long drive to Vegas (about five hours) through the scorching desert expanses of both Utah and Arizona. While on this journey, we ran into our first vehicular issue; a loud wailing and grinding sound was coming from somewhere near the dashboard of the van. Being the fearless leader that he is, program coordinator Brendan was able to fix it (and we got a tiny respite from the van’s cramped interior).

Upon arriving in Las Vegas (temperature: 105° F at 3 pm,), we visited the massive Springs Preserve, a museum and ecological restoration site all rolled into one. Las Vegas was originally built on a spring (allowing life in the otherwise bone-dry desert), the natural form of which has since run dry. The Preserve museum offered information on Las Vegas’s geologic transformation, history as a city, water consumption, and ideas for sustainability and conservation. Outside, gardens based on native desert vegetation interspersed with informational creature exhibits were a highlight.

Day 9: Monday, July 18

After a fun evening in our hotel, the Golden Nugget (which houses a large outdoor pool with an aquarium in the middle, through which runs a water slide; questionable sustainability practices in a region with little water), we started the day off bright and early with an 8 am meeting at the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Doug Bennett, their Water Conservation Manager, gave us a very detailed presentation about past, present, and projected water use in Las Vegas, followed by descriptions about current conservation programs and strategies. Vegas receives 90% of its water from the Colorado River, yet as a state, Nevada receives the smallest apportionment of any state in the Basin (only 0.3 maf each year). This means that any changes in the river’s flow, such as the recent drought, drastically influence Las Vegas. A pipeline is proposed that would tap the groundwater of the Great Basin in Northern Nevada and transport it to Las Vegas, however it is highly controversial (not to mention costly, at $3.5 billion).

Our next meeting with SNWA ecologist Jason Eckberg took us to the Las Vegas Wash, a previously ephemeral stream turned into a constant flow by discharge from the Wastewater Treatment Plant upstream. The Wash has been restored as a thriving habitat for many species of flora and fauna, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and the native cottonwood trees. Its water is still wastewater and not fit for human consumption, but returning this water to Lake Mead helps in reuse and fulfilling return flow quotas.

A quick lunch later brought us to the Boulder City Bureau of Reclamation Operations Center, which creates release schedules for Hoover, Parker, and Davis dams. We learned about the complexity of predicting future flows, as well as the potential drains facing the Colorado River’s major storage units, Lakes Powell and Mead.

Next, we drove over to the Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Plant, where we met with a civil engineer who told us about an ongoing project to create a new intake on Lake Mead. The reason for this new intake is due to dropping levels on Lake Mead; if an elevation of 1050 feet is reached (the lake is currently at 1104 ft), intake #1 will fail due to its shallow placement. The project is quite costly, but because intake #3 will be placed at elevation 860 feet, it will hopefully extend the life of Lake Mead.

Our final stop for the day was at the gargantuan Hoover Dam, an impressive feat of human engineering. No matter how many pictures one has seen of it, the dam is still mind-blowing in size and stature, and in our case, heat—the temperature clocked in at 113°F. We are very grateful to Doug Bennett and the SNWA for setting up this jam-packed tour of Las Vegas water for us. We’re also ready to move on to the agricultural mecca of Imperial Valley, CA tomorrow and out of Sin City.

By Sally Hardin, Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Researcher