3 All on red!
By Clemente Álvarez & Nacho Corbella
The lights are dimmed and the color floodlights come on. The drummer takes off, while ten fingers run up and down the keyboard and the strings of two electric guitars and a bass guitar begin their dance. We’re in Las Vegas, the city of casinos, in Nevada. Dressed in a grey suit and black shirt, Juan Almanza, originally from Colombia, goes up on stage. “What have we got to do with the Colorado River?” he asks speaking into the microphone. “Well, there’s a lot,” he answers back to himself. “What kind of city are we going to leave for our children? A lovely city without any water? If there’s no water, there’s no way to live here.” To which the obliging audience answers in unison: “Amen.”
The Centro de Adoración Familiar (CAF), a family-oriented worship center located on East Patrick Lane resembles a party venue more than it does a Christian church. It is quite a spectacle seeing Pastor Almanza standing before a hundred or so Hispanics attending the worship service this Sunday. He laughs, gestures and sings… Doing a pantomime, he pretends to be brushing his teeth while up at the pulpit. “What can we do? That gesture of shutting off the faucet will be multiplied by God, as He did with the fish.” They all repeat again: “Amen.”
In the same city as where water from the Colorado spews out of a volcano at the luxurious Mirage Hotel or is sprayed into the air by the fountains at the Bellagio to the accompaniment of lights and music, Almanza is one of the pastors participating in an initiative by Hispanic organizations to raise consciousness about the need to protect this river. “The environment is not a matter belonging exclusively to Greenpeace, it is a commandment from God,” states the Colombian clergyman, whose church contributed to the launching of an impacting video about the Colorado: ‘Yo soy Rojo – I am Red’. It may seem unlikely to hear the pleas coming from a pastor in this so-called Sin City, but all these enormous casinos also depend on the river. The roulettes are showing all bets on red.
Of the finished buildings in Las Vegas, the tallest is the stunning Palazzo Hotel. It has 53 floors and is 643 feet tall. Not far from there, about 40 minutes by car, if you look over the edge of the concrete structure of Hoover Dam you will see a drop-off of 726.4 feet. Built between 1931 and 1933, during the Great Depression, at a time when gambling was again being legalized in Nevada, this colossal feat of engineering, which is taller than any of the city’s skyscrapers, completely changed the arid landscape to the Southwest United States. Behind this dam built by 21,000 workers and shaped by more than 5 million barrels of cement – some 1,880 million pounds – lies Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado. Water is being sent from here to Arizona, California or Mexico. Also captured is 90% of the water supply for southern Nevada, including Las Vegas, a metropolis that had 5,165 inhabitants in the year when construction of the dam was begun, but to its fixed population of 2 million (31% are Latinos) it adds another 40 million visitors each year. In the middle of the Mojave Desert, this seems like a miracle, and it has much to do with the Colorado.
When Almanza arrived in this metropolis from Colombia 13 years ago, before the Mirage and the Bellagio were around, he went to see Lake Mead. This is the lake with the largest capacity in the United States, able to hold 28.9 million acre-feet* of water on which to sail, waterski or dive. Of course it has to be full in order to do all that. Its level can reach 1,221.4 feet above sea level, at which point it begins to overflow down the reservoir’s spillways. But that has not happened since 1983. An enormous white mark along the edges of the lake today discloses how much its surface has dropped as a result of the drought. “The last time we were here I came away feeling concerned,” states this pastor who has his own reality show over the local TV with his wife and three children, which is called ‘Los Almanza.’ “What is happening affects us directly, because that is the source of the water we use for bathing, sustaining ourselves and producing electricity…” “Without the river, jobs will dry up and the crisis among Hispanics will increase.”
For quite some time, something similar to what happens when the symbols begin to spin as you lower the handle on a slot machine has been happening as everyone’s eyes are fixed on Lake Mead’s levels. The difference here is that the concern is not how the images of fruits are going to line up, but rather the number representing the water level in feet: 1, 0, 7, 8. This is Lake Mead’s current level, 1,078 feet above sea level, which means it is at 40% of its capacity. For now it continues to pay out winnings, as it has not dropped below the point where rationing measures will be enforced in the basin. Nevertheless, it is near there, as last June 23rd the level dropped to 1,074.98 feet, the lowest in its history, starting from the time the reservoir was filled in 1937.
“I believe that we as Hispanics have a responsibility to look after the Colorado. Years ago it was in someone else’s hands, and maybe they did it wrong, or maybe they did it right. Now, God has brought us to this nation to assume the task. If we notice that the river is drying up, we have to solve the problem,” Almanza stresses passionately. “It’s our turn. Through our votes, our actions, a cry or a song… As Hispanics we have a big responsibility for taking care of the river. If we don’t, where are we going to migrate?”
The issue now is not just to address the current drought: how are we going to ensure the water supply for a metropolis such as Las Vegas in the middle of the desert in a future scenario where Lake Mead’s water level is going to continue to drop because of climate change? This has to do with placing a complicated bet. Paradoxically, this city of colored chips thrown onto gambling tables, going to parties in a limousine, pole dancers or bouts of vomiting due to drinking alcohol excessively, also represents an interesting case in efficient water management in the United States.
“Even though the population has been growing, our consumption has dropped,” explains Diana Díaz, from the Southern Nevada Water Autority (SNWA). This modern metropolis where 90% of its water comes from the Colorado has no other choice: they have no historical rights to the water as do agricultural areas to the south and Nevada’s share of the river is the smallest: 300,000 acre-feet* per year (the equivalent of 18 million tanker trucks full).
As with the multiplication of the loaves and fish in the Bible, Las Vegas has also learned to stretch out the water reusing it several times. This can be accomplished in different ways. One is to directly utilize the water that has already been used for watering yards and golf courses; the other consists of recovering it after it has been used in order to return it to Lake Mead. “For every gallon that we return to the lake, we will be able to take another one back,” explains Díaz, who states that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has sent back nearly 200,000 acre-feet in 2014.
Let us suppose that a gambler got up with a terrible headache and drank a glass of water. Then he went to the toilet, unzipped his pants, returned his share back to the Colorado and pressed the flush lever. This liquid waste that travels through the city sewers cannot be reused directly, but has to go through different kinds of treatment. According to the SNWA, Las Vegas is one of the metropolises in the United States that obtains the best quality of recycled water. The cleanliness parameters obtained today can be as high as in other places that are proposing their direct use for drinking, but there are still important cultural barriers. In this case, the water that has already gone through the body of a gambler with a hangover, after being cleaned, is then sent back to Lake Mead to be mixed in with the rest of the water and reused (the proximity of the lake makes the process very efficient). Next time it may well reach an individual that has been luckier at the roulette, serve to irrigate an alfalfa field in California or bring laughter to the youngsters who are swimming in an irrigation canal in Mexico.
Las Vegas recovers 100% of the water used in its households and sends it back into the lake, but there is another part that cannot be recovered, such as that used for watering yards and golf courses. How much of this represents the city’s total consumption? As if she were a croupier at a casino dealing cards, Díaz reveals the different rates of water consumption in southern Nevada: golf courses account for 6.8% of use; luxury hotels and casino, with their fountains and gardens, 7.6%; businesses and industry, 12.6%; the residential sector, 59.8%…”That 7% for the Casinos is what is taken from the Colorado, but 60% of this water is actually recovered and returned to the river. Hence they are only using up 3%,” she comments.
In contrast with other states such as California or Arizona, southern Nevada has no agriculture. Here, what are of most importance to total consumption are the households. But another key fact needs to be put on the table, something that repeats itself throughout the United States: “of the water used in households, 60% is used outdoors, in the yards,” Díaz points out, exactly where it cannot be recovered. Aside from pretending to brush his teeth during his Sunday sermon as a way of reminding his flock to shut off the faucet when they aren’t using it, Pastor Almanza could very well pantomime the act of grabbing a shovel and wheelbarrow to remove a green lawn, even though it isn’t necessarily his audience who wastes the most by watering lawns. “One of our most successful programs for saving water is efficient gardens,” explains the representative from SNWA. “We pay $1.50 for every square foot of lawn that is replaced with efficient plants.”
Everything considered the prediction is that Lake Mead’s water level will continue to drop. Because of this a third water intake was recently built, one that is deeper down than the two existing up until now. This was a gigantic feat that made it necessary to drill a three-mile tunnel under the lake, which has taken seven years to complete. The other two intakes are at depths of 1,050 and 1,000 feet. Now with this new one built at the bottom of the lake, at 860 feet, it is expected that the water supply for the houses and casinos of southern Nevada can be maintained, even though the Colorado’s water may be diminishing. By the time there would be a need to resort to building this third intake, there would have been cutbacks in water distributions and the situation in the lower Colorado basin would have turned ugly.
“God can bring us the miracle,” states Pastor Almanza in a categorical way. “But He is a wise God, and performs miracles where resources are optimized and not where they are wasted.”
– “We need to be aware of this and do a good job of managing the water. Don’t you agree?”
– “I want to hear you say Amen!”
We leave Las Vegas behind and continue to go up the river, against the current. The most spectacular part of the Colorado lies ahead, which is where the river runs wild and returns to its natural state.