Las Vegans who bristle at the occasional outsider’s suggestion that the city is doomed to die of thirst now have at their disposal a smart new rebuttal in the form of an international water agreement. Next time a Northeasterner makes you feel like a squatter in a condemned building, whip this out: Minute 319, the Interim International Cooperative Measures in the Colorado River Basin.
Those interested in really knowing what they’re talking about, however, should read on, for the deal is not what it seems in some headlines.
In the big picture, it establishes a new kind of cooperation between the United States and Mexico. The U.S. will help its southern neighbor save water, store it in Lake Mead during times of surplus and distribute it differently during times of drought.
Most water hawks agree it’s a good deal for many reasons. It’s the first time since the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 that the parties have made a cross-border deal for collaborative conservation and reallocation. Although the agreement only covers five years, it sets the stage for extension, as well as similar new partnerships in the future.
Even conservationists are happy, because of provisions to generate water for the environment of the Colorado River delta in the upper Gulf of California. No substantial amount of water has reached this area, the river’s natural destination, since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1960, causing the ecosystem there to wither. But ecologists working in the area believe that even relatively small, sporadic inflows can revive indigenous species. So, beyond marking Mexico’s meaningful entrée into the conversation, the new agreement marks the beginning of the discussion about the natural environment’s need for water, in addition to humans’ need for it.
This matters, in a big, existential way. It’s apparently safe to say, now that the U.S. presidential election is over, that global warming is here, and it’s coming to a desert near you. Drawing on his 2011 book, A Great Aridness (Oxford University), conservationist William deBuys recently showed a packed UNLV auditorium copious data indicating that rising heat in our desert will sap what little moisture we have left in less than a human lifetime. But one of the hopes deBuys offered for reversing the runaway train of deadly aridity was the preservation and restoration of ecosystems, which help retain moisture and reduce greenhouse gases.
He also mentioned the need to slow or halt development in dry areas—noting (drily, of course) that a water manager he interviewed had likened this proposition to standing in front of another runaway train.
For now, it’s enough to know that our political and environmental leaders may be able to look beyond the rhetoric of allocation and conservation and talk about what’s really at stake: the possibility of a Las Vegas class of 2075.