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Water: Rainfall in Las Vegas Averages Fewer Than Four Inches a Year
by Michelle Ferrari

Bellagio fountains at twilight As statistics go, this one seems particularly counterintuitive, but in the year 2000, Las Vegas residents led the nation in water consumption, running through, on average, nearly four hundred gallons per person per day. A bird's-eye view of the ever-expanding metropolis reveals a mosaic of emerald lawns and blue swimming pools and massive sparkling lakes -- a landscape that at first glance looks more like the Midwest than it does the Mojave. Students of the city invariably attribute these rather confounding facts to the preponderance of newcomers and their overweening desire to re-create the environments they left behind. But the extent to which Las Vegas neither looks nor acts like the desert also points to one of the more perverse dimensions of its civic identity: despite all environmental and climatological evidence to the contrary, the city stubbornly continues to think of itself as an oasis.

In the beginning, of course, the place was an oasis, and it was the presence of water -- the ample, if not exactly abundant, supply from its springs and artesian wells -- that first put Las Vegas on the map. But the natural bounty, such as it was, could never have sustained the city's rampant, explosive growth, much less kept the place green. As the population doubled and doubled and doubled again, Las Vegas bet the farm on the transformative power of technology and effectively willed the very idea of scarcity away, covering it over with a dazzling illusion of plenty.

Nevada Desert. By the 1990s artful water display had become a competitive sport, with Strip resorts incorporating extravagant design elements that obscured any immediate perception of the surrounding desert: Treasure Island's 65-foot-deep Buchaneer Bay; the Venetian's 1,200-foot miniature replica of Venice's Grand Canal; and the Bellagio's 8.5 acre man-made lake and $30 million fountain, a fantastical display comprised of more than one thousand "dancing" jets, each capable of shooting water some 240 feet into the air. In the residential neighborhoods, meanwhile, water worship gave rise to communities with preposterous names like Crystal Cove and Desert Shore, the Lakes and Coral Cay, as well as dozens of recreational and aesthetic "water features" (otherwise known as ponds and lakes), and more than thirty eighteen-hole golf courses, each as green as the table felts in the casinos.

No one disputes that water use in this largely man-made oasis of a million and a half people is profligate, but few predict disaster for the desert city. While most observers agree that water remains the primary hedge on Las Vegas's growth, they also concede that, as long as American society continues to do business as it does now, little possibility exists that the city will ever actually run dry. As the late historian Marc Reisner once observed, in the West water flows uphill to money; and at this point, anyway, Las Vegas is practically minting the stuff. "I think in Las Vegas there is still that feeling of kind of surreal triumph over the elements," says writer David Thomson. "'Damn those elements,' you know, 'we can beat them.' It's this amazing sort of mixture of optimism and recklessness."


Michelle Ferrari is the Emmy winning screenwriter of Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, and the author, with Stephen Ives, of the companion book to the series, in which this essay appears.

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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History American Experience

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