Among the many criticisms of cities during this epic drought is the idea that maybe not so many humans should live in deserts. But nowhere has more fingers pointed at it than Las Vegas. This visualization shows just how much Vegas relies on its man-made water system: As Vegas sprawls, Lake Mead sputters to its lowest-ever levels.
For ProPublica’s latest story in their drought series, writer Abrahm Lustgarten profiles the former head of the city’s water district Pat Mulroy, nicknamed the “Water Witch” for her drastic conservational efforts. Most people don’t know that Vegas has actually managed to reduce its water use significantly through stringent water-use restrictions and a comprehensive water recycling program, among other efforts.
Mulroy moved beyond public awareness campaigns and began to crack down on profligate residential and recreational water use in Las Vegas more aggressively. She banned the lush green lawns that had typically lined the city’s newly developed suburban streets and offered cash incentives for homeowners to rip out their existing lawns. She also barred fountains and ornamental waterfalls, the kind that decorated just about every hotel and a good number of upscale communities. She installed watering restrictions for golf courses and demanded that new housing developments meet water efficiency guidelines.
But growth in Las Vegas has always been limited to how much water the city could allocate for its residents. That’s why, in addition to her public conservation work, Mulroy sealed several deals to ensure that Vegas was getting more and more water to bolster its development. When you look through history, as the flow of water siphoned from the Colorado River increases—like a faucet being turned on—the city grows. The last big project she helped move towards reality is the “Third Straw,” a giant infrastructure project which is designed to suck more water out of Lake Mead, the city’s Colorado River-fed water source. Vegas gets only four inches of rain per year.
Accompanying the story is a gorgeous interactive map that makes the correlation even more apparent—and disturbing. Looking especially at the last 15 years of drought, Lake Mead gets lower and lower, while Vegas gets bigger and bigger. What’s especially smart about the visualization is the inclusion of the iconic buildings on the Strip, which more than anything convey the city’s skyrocketing development agenda. According to the story, the goal is growth at any cost. Read the full story at ProPublica.