In Las Vegas artist Matthew Couper’s ominous oil painting “Mother’s Milk Aquifer,” the story of the Southwest’s relationship with water is represented in the form of 12-foot-long American currency.
Gorgeous, atmospheric, conflating classical and contemporary, it pulls the viewer into a twisted Narnia, one that’s less fantasy and more reality. In it, we see a potential future, if not the present.
The Spanish colonial–style painting, featured in the Nevada Museum of Art’s Tilting the Basin exhibit, now on display in the Arts District, is loaded with Couper’s style of symbolism feeding the narrative. Colored drinking straws, spouting red liquid, stem from the desert landscape. Vegetation is sparse. A tree, having been toppled, has only its trunk and dead branches, and a philosopher wearing a robe has a justice building as a head. An American flag is tucked under his arm. In the center, an emaciated wolf drips water from her full and dangling teats.
“I feel the lean of the fatalistic here, the glittering testament to the man-made in the middle of an arid desert,” the New Zealand–born artist says in a statement to the museum. “Coupled with the threats of water running out, you’re living on the edge of the precipice here, which evokes a specific, urgent kind of artwork.”
To anyone who’s read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a 2015 dystopian thriller set in the desert Southwest where water thieves, desperate citizens and officials battle for the H2O, this painting could almost be torn from its pages. Water is currency in the futuristic book that characterizes a mad, bloody and unethical battle for resources in a world depleted of them. In it, the Southern Nevada Water Authority fights to continue Las Vegas as a lush wonderland even while others thirst. One character is loosely reminiscent, accurately or not, of the controversial Pat Mulroy (the former general manager of the water authority from 1993–2014).
Hyperbole aside, the fictional tale mirrors our very real fears about water—driven by drought, suburban sprawl and a giant bathtub ring in our man-made lake. But the question of whether Lake Mead and the Colorado River will run out of water—emptied by growth, apathy, lack of snowpack from the Rockies and global warming—recurs in debates by scientists, politicians, water experts and academics.
Since the beginning of time, the Southwest’s story has always been about water, from its inception and subsequent transformations over billions of years—ocean to wetlands to eventually desert with natural springs and aquifers.
Natives learned to irrigate and work within the water system. But westward expansion had the government championing settlements out West as farmers were struggling with the flooding and unpredictable Colorado River. After years of considering how to harness the water for reliable use, Black Canyon’s walls were blasted in 1931 with dynamite and moxie to divert the water, while the Hoover Dam was constructed and a giant reservoir named Lake Mead was created. It prompted the evacuation of the town of St. Thomas and accelerated archaeological digs to record a lengthy history of habitats that would soon be under water.
The dam was marketed and celebrated as an engineering masterpiece. Man had controlled nature by abating the Colorado River’s famous flood and drought cycles. Communities could thrive at last, and new residents established themselves out West. Visitors came by the carloads to see the man-made desert lake and marveled at the construction of the outlandishly imaginative Depression-era project famous for its engineering prowess.
To maintain and control visits to the reservoir, Lake Mead was designated as a National Recreation Area. But the headliner was the Hoover Dam—a robust project completed with boasting politicians, infighting between the states and massive labor at a time when the country was dealing with 25 percent unemployment.
Today, the once-full reservoir appears as if it’s screaming for help with its bathtub ring and empty harbors. It reminds one of Franz Kafka’s main character in A Hunger Artist. We slowly watch it disappear and weaken before our eyes.
Make no mistake, this town was built on illusion and fantasy. Las Vegas Strip–style manufactured realities filter into neighborhoods sold as Mediterranean-style landscapes that have nothing at all to do with the Mojave Desert. The fascination for building an otherworldliness captivated urban planner Ralph Stern, formerly a professor in the architecture department at UNLV, and longtime colleague Nicole Huber, who detailed the story of the ’90s boom in their book, Urbanizing the Mojave Desert: Las Vegas.
In an area fighting for limited water, we use this scarce resource as folly, whether as entertainment on the Strip, in man-made bodies of water or our sprawling neighborhoods. The Lakes offer waterfront homes and pontoons and docks. Lake Las Vegas comes with gondolas and a faux Ponte Vecchio stretching out above the water. Steve Wynn’s planned $1.6 billion lake resort will further the illusion and affirm the idea that Las Vegas can create any environment here.
But its the neighborhoods, and not the Strip, that consume the bulk of the water allotted to us from a dwindling river, says Mulroy in a Brookings Institution video, praising the tourist corridor’s capture-and-reuse success.
Lake Mead’s water level has reportedly dropped more than 130 feet since 2000, with the Valley receiving about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. The Southern Nevada Water Authority,formed in 1991, established a water resource plan and more recently laid out plans for the controversial rural Nevada pipeline project. Restrictions came in the form of limiting residential and commercial fountains and landscaping as well as setting in place watering cycles—all of it a response to a drought and water shortage that many argue was exacerbated by developer greed. The desire for water even had an outdoor shopping mall in Summerlin importing water for its fountain in response to the restrictions.
Today there is almost a spectacle nature to our water loss and use. St. Thomas, the town evacuated and flooded, now exposed with only its foundations visible, is a destination. It’s difficult to discern whether Hoover Dam tourists marvel more at the project itself or the water they’ve seen drop immensely since their earlier visits.
“We take water for granted,” says Mulroy, who is now with the Brookings Institution at UNLV. “Ben Franklin was right. You learn the value of water when the well runs dry, and human behavior has replicated that time after time after time.”
Lake Mead and Arizona’s Lake Powell contain 50 million acre-feet of storage when full. Both of them going down to quarter capacity—Lake Powell is currently at 48 percent capacity and Lake Mead is at 40 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation—is a “scary proposition,” Mulroy says, asserting that part of the problem is a community not identifying itself as citizens of a watershed.
“The impact of climate change is going to play itself out in the water arena. To turn your head and say it’s not going to affect us is insanity,” Mulroy says.
Creative SNWA campaigns with television commercials attempt to shame water wasters and assert that water saving is sexy. The SNWA says that the response to the PSAs has been successful. But still, plenty of us thrive apathetically in the Eden that propaganda for the Hoover Dam promised.
With melting polar caps and California’s worst drought in history on the books, the politicizing and debate over scientific research on global warming hearkens to the days of Galileo. Droughts and climate shifts have taken place over the past several billion years, and some refuse to believe that humans have an impact on today’s ecosystem. But at some point, the reality will clobber us. Fear and debate aside, resources are running out. At the end of the day, it comes down to individual responsibility and how much we allow ourselves to care.