Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: Tell us about Las Vegas and why it's booming. Why is this town growing so rapidly?
Hal Rothman: I think Las Vegas is growing so rapidly because of the fundamental changes in American culture. If you think about it, the baby-boomers are getting close to the time when people are seeking leisure. We've become a self-indulgent culture of experience. When you wrap all of that up, people end up here in larger numbers than before, both as visitors and ultimately as residents.
Interviewer: Does water follow growth or visa versa?
Hal Rothman: As the late Mark Risner use to say, "Water flows uphill toward money in the American West." There is no truer vision of that than Las Vegas today.
Interviewer: Are rancher's concerns valid? Do they have reasons to be worried about a ground water pipeline coming from their area to Las Vegas?
Hal Rothman: I would never be the one to tell ranchers not to be worried about a pipeline taking their water from rural Nevada and rural Utah to Las Vegas. But on the other hand, when you start to make this into an economic equation, their position is in defense. That is, that ultimately in the new West we build four things; prisons, theme parks, casinos and sub-divisions and none of those have anything to do with agriculture and ranching. The result is that in the last twenty-five years water has been moving from rural areas to urban areas and the states have benefited economically as a result. It's not a question of "if" it's a question of when. So in that way, they should be worried, but can they maintain their lifestyle, cut them-selves a deal that will work for them? Absolutely!
Interviewer: Should they trust the water authority in this case?
Hal Rothman: I think they should trust the Southern Nevada Water Authority for no other reason than they have revolutionized western water. They have taken it from the old whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting model to a side where everybody sits at the table and negotiates like grown-ups. I think that would be a remarkable step forward, not only for western ranchers but for all of us in the West. We've gone here from the local water district to a Southern Nevada one. Someday there will be a statewide water district and ultimately there will be inter-state water districts that manage water throughout the region. That's the feature, and the question is, do you want to be on the bus or under the wheels?
Interview: Is this a water grab, and are there any parallels to that in your opinion?
Hal Rothman: There are no parallels to Owens Valley. One hundred and ten years ago, we lived in a very different kind of world. You simply could not do something like that today. Everything today goes through environmental processes and there are a whole range of phenomena that didn't exist in 1900, and so the idea that somebody can draw the basin dry in the way that it happened in the 1900 is simply not feasible today.
Interviewer: One of the principles is, should the few give up their resources for the many in terms of the economy?
Hal Rothman: It's not that the few are giving up their resources to the many. What's going on here, and Nevada in particular, urban areas subsidize roads and rural communities and subsidize almost every measure of life in rural areas. So the question becomes, do they want to start paying for their own roads, schools, medical or do they want the state, which generates 75% of its revenue in our economy, to continue doing it for them? If they sit on their water, the prospect exists that they have to find a way to pay their own bills, and that will raise the taxes on the very ranchers that are complaining about water being taken from them.
Interviewer: One of the concerns is they feel they're losing their lifestyle and their heritage. What do you think about that?
Hal Rothman: I'm not a fan of culture and custom arguments. The fact that we should do something because we've always done something makes absolutely no sense. If that were the case, we would still have slavery in the United States, women wouldn't vote, and a whole range of other things that are unconscionable.
Interview: As you look down the road, what are the biggest issues for water in the West?
Hal Rothman: I think the greatest problem with water in the West the way we do it today is you've got a hundred-year old system which never worked very well, and is totally broken down. And in a hundred years, if it continues, it will put an indent into the culture of the West itself. Why? Because simply what it will do is, the way we use water in the West will destroy agriculture because it put selenium in the fields, it will make the fields unusable in the end and production simply won't exist. So the question becomes, since we know that the wheels are broken now, what are we going to do about it? The biggest problem is whether we're going to continue to have any agriculture at all. I think the consequence of continuing to behave the way we do is the end of the environment as we know it, and agriculture as we know it. So I don't think that's tenable. I think over time we're going to have to find new ways. We know that the cart is broken now, and we should start fixing it instead of waiting until our demise is eminent.
Interview: Should Las Vegas have been built in such and arid environment?
Hal Rothman: If you think about it, Las Vegas is a city that is actually an oasis. It was built and existed until 1970 on it's own groundwater. Now what's happened since then is Nevada has harnessed it's miniscule share of the Colorado River—an a agreement that is so preposterous that is defies all comprehension. The result is its growth has continued because it has been able to get Colorado River water, not ground water. And ultimately groundwater is a sideshow in Las Vegas. The real future for Las Vegas is in redoing the Colorado River compact either administratively as it currently goes on or by writing a new one.
Interviewer: Explain to me what is meant by "the fiction of the river?"
Hal Rothman: People call the Colorado compact the law of the river. I call it the fiction of the river. Why? Because it is not based in any reality. It allocates too much water. Its allocations to rural districts are far away to urban areas that generates money. It's an eighty-five year old piece of legislation now. It is absurd now.
Interviewer: What would you like to see the ranchers do in terms of resolving this with the water authorities?
Hal Rothman: I'd like to see the ranchers come to the table and take a seat and negotiate like grownups and cut the grandstanding and sit there and say, what can we do here to make this a fair, better system for everybody? And to help the middle-class of the future get into footing so it can pay into social security and we can all retire in the end.
Interviewer: What is the biggest misconception about water use in Las Vegas?
Hal Rothman: The biggest misconception about water use in Las Vegas is that it is wasteful. Dollar for dollar Las Vegas is the most efficient use of water in the state. At no point does urban Nevada use any more than 20% of the state's water. It generates more than 99% of the state's revenue any way you measure it—jobs, taxation. So what we've got here is an odd anachronism that has water only because it has. It has no justification, social or economic, for having that water and that ultimately it impoverishes the rest of us. In the rural parts of the state very few people benefit from the water. You see very little job growth, very little employment, and very small opportunities and so the result is people come to the cities from inside and outside of Nevada because that's where the economic opportunity is. Meanwhile we're using all of the water to grow alfalfa in rural places, and it makes no sense.
Hal Rothman: In the Nevada, the county that uses the most water is Elko County, not Clark County, which has 75% of the people.
Interviewer: What is that water used for?
Hal Rothman: Water in Elko County is used to grow alfalfa. More than 80% of the water from Nevada is used for agriculture and ranching.