How Las Vegas Exists in America’s Driest Desert

How Las Vegas Exists in America’s Driest Desert

Las vegas is one of the most well-known
cities anywhere in the world tens of
millions of people visited every single
year who contribute to making it the
third most visited city in the united
states by foreign tourists just behind
new york and miami las vegas receives so
many foreign tourists that it beats out
many other major tourist hotspot cities
across the world like los angeles
chicago shanghai barcelona berlin vienna
and even venice in order to accommodate
all these visitors las vegas possesses a
truly impressive hospitality arsenal of
around 150
000 hotel rooms which is more than any
other city on the planet has got and
this is despite the fact that las vegas
itself is a relatively young city having
only existed for a tad longer than a
century and with a relatively small
metropolitan population of only little
more than 2.2 million people which only
ranks it as the 26th largest city in the
united states but las vegas size and age
are irrelevant factors to the massive
volumes of tourists who arrive here
every single year for them they almost
all come for just one single thing
vegas’s legendary reputation as the
entertainment capital of the world and
the greatest playground for adults
anywhere on the earth along with
louisiana the state of nevada where las
vegas is located is the only american
state to a fully legalized casino
gambling statewide which has long caused
vegas to be almost synonymous with
gambling and casinos around 8 in every
10 visitors to the city will gamble at
one of the numerous casinos while
they’re there and bet an average of
around six hundred dollars a person
while slightly more than half of all
visitors will attend one of the many
shows hosted in the city as well
altogether these tourists visiting the
city generally contribute more than 100
billion dollars per year to the nevada
state economy and place las vegas as one
of the top travel destinations in the
world but the strangest aspect of this
city for me as someone who spent much of
their childhood growing up in nevada
with more visits to las vegas than i can
even count is the fact that all of this
outrageous entertainment and excess for
tens of millions of people all seemingly
exists precisely where it shouldn’t in
the middle of the driest and least
hospitable desert of the north american
continent the mojave desert this is the
same desert that includes death valley
after all the ominously and
appropriately named valley located just
a two hour drive from the las vegas
strip that recorded the hottest
temperature ever measured on the surface
of the earth a little more than a
century ago in 1913 at
134 degrees fahrenheit or 57 degrees
celsius the mojave desert is so dry that
the area around las vegas itself only
receives an average of around four
inches of rainfall per year which is
even less rain than timbuk2 receives in
mali at the southern edge of the sahara
desert in 2020 las vegas set a
still-standing record of going 224
entire straight days without a single
drop of rainfall and the reason for las
vegas extreme dryness is almost entirely
geographical the mojave desert itself is
located entirely east of the towering
sierra nevada mountains of california
with peaks as high as mount whitney at
14
505 feet the highest point anywhere in
the contiguous 48 united states and a
mere 85 miles away as the crow flies
from the aforementioned death valley the
lowest point on the north american
continent at 282 feet beneath sea level
these towering mountains block most of
the moisture that blows into north
america from the westerly winds of the
pacific and they therefore cast what’s
known as a rain shadow across their east
where the moisture coming in from the
pacific fails to penetrate into of
course las vegas itself is located
directly within this rain shadow cast by
the sierra nevada but it’s also located
within a valley here that’s surrounded
by even further mountain ranges on every
side some of which soar up to 10 000
feet in elevation and block even more
moisture from blowing into the city with
the wind from beyond and the nearest
significant river and source of fresh
water to this valley the colorado is
around 30 miles away from it in short
this valley was never historically a
very attractive location to build even a
settlement and much less a modern
metropolis of two and a quarter million
people and as a result it was basically
nothing of any more significance than
sparsely populated desert for thousands
of years until the very beginning of the
20th century when the city of las vegas
was officially founded in 1905 and
incorporated in 1911 but for the next
several decades afterwards vegas would
remain relatively sleepy and quiet until
1931 when two major things happened that
would change the region’s demographic
destiny forever afterwards with a tiny
population of only 94 000 people
statewide nevada was by far the least
populous state in the country at the
time with less than half the population
of the next least populous state wyoming
reeling from the economic fallout of the
great depression and struggling to find
anyone who is willing to invest in their
tiny state economy the nevada state
government decided on a bold course of
action they became the first u.s state
to legalize nearly every form of
gambling in order to bring in at least
some kind of economic relief to their
state and perhaps even more importantly
1931 also marked the beginning of the
construction of the hoover dam on the
colorado river just 30 miles away from
the city and perhaps even more
importantly never before in human
history had such a monolithic structure
ever been built with concrete thousands
of laborers moved in and worked
tirelessly for years to finish the job
and at least 115 of them lost their
lives trying but with the thousands of
new workers coming into the town for the
damn construction came higher demands
for things like entertainment and
amenities and with the recent
legalization of casino gambling the
genesis for las vegas status as the
entertainment capital of the world was
born when the dam was finished in 1936
it created the largest water reservoir
in the entire united states just behind
it in the form of lake mead and granted
the southwestern united states the
ability to generate enormous amounts of
electricity through hydropower the
colorado river is ideally suited for
hydroelectric power generation owing to
its large flow and steep gradient
descending from its source high up in
the rocky mountains of colorado towards
the lower elevations of the mojave and
sonoran deserts with massive volumes of
water pumped to the city directly from
lake mead and massive amounts of
electricity from the dam investment
finally began pouring into las vegas and
its unique entertainment industry
following the second world war and the
population began to steadily increase by
1960 las vegas had finally overtaken
reno to become nevada’s most populous
city with 64 000 people and the
population would roughly double from
there over the next decade to more than
125 000 people by 1970. more people than
lived in the entirety of nevada just 30
years previously from then back in 1940.
between 1990 and 2000 the population of
las vegas roughly doubled again and by
the close of the 20th century las vegas
had earned the distinction of being the
most populous city in north america that
was founded within the same century just
like chicago had been during the 19th
century but as las vegas fortunes and
population continued to soar so too did
the demand in the region for the area’s
sparse supplies of water with its
crippling lack of rainfall the
population of las vegas and southern
nevada is overwhelmingly dependent upon
lake mead and the colorado river that
feeds it from the snow melt of the rocky
mountains accounting for some 90
of all the city’s fresh water today back
in the 1920s prior to the construction
of the hoover dam the seven american
states that controlled territory within
the colorado river’s basin agreed to the
colorado river compact an agreement the
divided control of the waters within the
basin amongst all seven of the states
the upper states of colorado utah
wyoming and new mexico would be entitled
to roughly half of the colorado river’s
water while the lower states of
california arizona and nevada would be
entitled to the other half with nearly
59 of that half going to california 37
to arizona and just 4
to nevada but the realities of the 1920s
were very different from the realities
of today one of the biggest concerns of
the agreement both then and now was the
expanding population in the southwest
particularly in southern california and
the resulting increased demand over time
for water in the lower basin states at
the same time las vegas wasn’t even
really a factor at all back in the 1920s
with a population of less than 3 000
people but with a modern population well
in excess of over 2 million nevada has
been looking for an increased share in
the river’s water now for decades but
today there are more than 40 million
people who depend on the colorado river
for their water supply and las vegas is
only a small fraction of that and at the
same time the colorado river’s water has
actually been greatly over allocated for
decades now because the original
estimates of the compact back in the
1920s suggested that the river had an
annual average flow of about 17 and a
half million acre feet of water that
reached the lower basin states of
arizona nevada and california however
these estimates back at the time were
based on just the past 30 years of
records going back to the 1890s which
were all the records that the people of
the 1920s actually had available and
modern 21st century studies of tree
rings in the area have revealed that
those 30 years of records they used just
so happened to probably be the wettest
period in the american southwest any
time in the past 5 to 12
centuries in other words the authors of
the 1920s era compact were grossly
misinformed on the actual historical
average levels of water within the river
and more water has been being allocated
to the states around it than actually
exists within the river almost ever
since and then climate change decreased
rates of snowfall in the rocky mountains
and droughts have been making everything
much worse and the situation has now
gotten so bad that the colorado river
today rarely even has enough flow left
in it to make it to its natural delta in
the gulf of california in mexico where
the once rich natural environment has
almost completely died there and dried
up this also means that lake mead itself
the source of most of modern las vegas
fresh water is rapidly shrinking in size
last month in june of 2022 the reservoir
hit a new all-time low after losing
nearly 180 feet of depth over just the
past 20 years if the levels drop by
another 100 feet the hoover dam will no
longer be capable of producing any
hydroelectric power but as it has always
done now for the past century las vegas
is rapidly learning how to adapt to this
changing environment and fascinatingly
despite being well renowned as a city of
tremendous successes las vegas is one of
the most water efficient cities in the
entire world because they have no other
choice but to be remember when i said
the nevada is only allocated four
percent of the lower colorado river’s
water that amounts to just around 300
000 acre feet of water today which isn’t
really a lot when considering the
california takes more than 14 times that
amount from the river but the catch is
that so long as the water is returned
back to the river it doesn’t actually
count against the state in terms of
total consumption this loophole means
that the southern nevada water authority
will usually draw around 445
000 acre feet of water from lake mead
during a normal year or about 40 percent
more than they’re technically allotted
for but since the city is capable of
cleaning and returning around 220 000
acre feet of water back to lake mead
during the same year nevada’s total
consumption from the river is usually
more like just 225 000 acre feet and
well beneath their total allotment in
order to achieve this incredible rate of
water recycling the city of las vegas
has enacted a number of ingenious policy
and engineering decisions the city has
been designed in such a way that every
last drop of water that ends up being
used indoors gets cleaned and recycled
directly back to lake mead you could
quite literally turn on every single
shower and every single sink in every
hotel room in the city and it wouldn’t
ever consume any more water because it
would all just flow through the city
sewers directly to water treatment
plants and then directly return all
clean back to lake mead for future use
and further watering lawns within the
city limits was strictly limited to just
a single day a week and largely because
of this focus on sustainable desert
design las vegas actually managed to
reduce their total water consumption
dramatically by 26
over the past 20 years since 2002
despite having added an additional 750
000 new residents to the total
population of the city over the same
time period and they aren’t finished
reducing their water consumption either
the first type of law of its kind in the
united states las vegas banned
non-functional and decorative grass in
the city last year in 2021 to save even
more water grass has been getting torn
out across city-owned property across
las vegas ever since and it’s going to
make an enormous difference
one square foot of grass consumes 73
gallons of water a year in order to keep
alive while more drought-tolerant desert
landscaping only consumes 18 gallons a
year city officials are spending
millions of dollars trying to convince
current homeowners to tear out their
grassy lawns and replace them with more
water friendly desert landscaping
options the southern nevada water
authority believes that these simple
landscaping measures favoring
sustainable desert landscaping over
non-functional grass will save around
nine and a half billion gallons of water
a year which is nearly 10
of las vegas total water supply in a lot
of senses las vegas is the model city
for the rest of the southwestern united
states as the region faces increasingly
harsher drought conditions and
decreasing water supplies as the
american government just recently issued
its first ever declared water shortage
for the colorado river this year it has
cut water allocations to all the states
along the river including nevadas from
300 000 acre feet to just 279
000 acre feet which when factoring in
the rate of las vegas incredible rate of
water recycling is still enough to meet
current demand but for how much longer
many climate experts are warning that
water levels within the colorado basin
will likely continue to drop over the
next several decades when combined with
the ever-increasing demand for water
from the still-growing population across
southern nevada arizona and southern
california the life for the desert
communities here are almost certainly
going to continue growing ever more
challenging from a water security
perspective the fact simply is that in
the future the other cities of the
american southwest and everywhere else
in the world who will struggle with
water supplies in the near future should
look to las vegas for their inspiration
of a city well designed to cope with the
challenges of 21st century climate
change in the middle of one of earth’s
least hospitable desert environments for
if life can be sustained for millions of
people and tens of millions of visitors
here through decades of clever design
and foresight it can also be achieved
elsewhere
now a major reason that i was so excited
to make a video covering this topic is
because i knew that i could get all
kinds of spectacular footage of las
vegas and the colorado river without
actually having to go travel and visit
them myself by simply visiting my stock
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one i can absolutely tell you from my
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always thank you so much
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