Water, the Rugged West and Other American Myths

clang, cling, bling, lights, bells and the clank of coins, Las Vegas, Nevada
It was the pinball machines that always grabbed me first with their loud clang, high clings, lights, bells and the clank of coins at the Trevose Roller Rink. The soda fountain’s compressed gas added to the cacophony. The smell of baking pizza cut through my allergy-stuffed nose. Wrapped in plastic, this slice of frozen wonder cooked in a first generation micro wave, and only half the partially melted plastic needed to be peeled off the cheese.


The fries, burgers, dogs, cheese steaks and grease were the aromas of fun for a ten-year-old’s sensibilities. The carney music concussed ears, the vision of whirling skaters circling the rink like an undulating snake, all added to the heat of innocent sin.

I sat with my buddies, hot, sweaty, exhilarated, and drank cold water from cone shaped paper cups. Billy said, “One day will have to pay for a cup of water.” What!! Never. Dumb…why?” the rest of use were stupefied. Being a ten-year-old at the Trevose Roller Rink, with the noise of music, cling of the pinball machines, smell of the cheap food and sweaty smiles, my innocence suffered its first doubt as to the future.

Goodsprings and El Dorado Canyon, Nevada


Along the road to Canyonland National Park, a ribbon of a river winds for miles through the surreal sandstone, wind and water sculpted canyons in hues of red, orange, green, tan and whites. A snake of invasive Cottonwood trees define the river. Water bubbles from an underground spring fed from rain that fell a thousand years ago on top of surrounding mesas and filtered through the limestone. Isolated ranches, images of the nineteenth century, conjure romantic notions of simpler times, but in this geography of awesome beauty, quiet and dryness, the fantasy evaporates as rapidly as a drought or gets washed away as quickly as a flash flood. Ten inches of annual rainfall create precarious conditions.

4000+ year-old pictographs, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pre-historic pictographs, wisely preserved by state and national parks, may have warned the unfortunate Mormon settlers, if anyone could have read them. To me they’re 4,000 year old graffiti – seriously humorous gripes of being an organism that’s 70% water living in a land lacking that most important element.  The park gates display large signs detailing to hikers the necessity to carry a daily minimum of one gallon of drinkable water per person. At the entrance to most park information centers are vending machines. They only sell 16 oz. plastic bottles of spring water – at $2.00 each.


The truth of my friend’s prediction is in Las Vegas amidst the clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and shimmering air of innocent sin. Nearly two-million Clark County residents, forty-million annual tourists, computerized undulating fountains, artificial beaches with waves, pirate galleons in Caribbean lagoons, tropical jungle rivers, Venetian canals and two-hundred acre golf courses all suck water from the desert’s less than 10″ of annual moisture and the underground aquifer that remains from a three-hundred million year old ocean. It’s not free, and it may not be forever.

a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, (bottom right) small water catchment

Mesa Verde, Colorado, is awesome. To generations of Native Americans it is sacred ground. Until the 13th century it was home to hundreds of people.  The First Americans choose this, and other mesas, for a variety of practical reasons. They were easily defensible, were covered with trees, had fertile soil and due to altitude and wind currents, received the lion’s share of rainfall in this otherwise parched region. The soft limestone rock both filters and traps precious water supplies rather than allowing it to simply run off the cliff. This confluence of advantages created the environment for a flourishing agrarian society over a millennium ago. Walking through the ruins of interconnecting rooms that served as both warehouses for grain and ceremonial centers for the political and religious elite several hundred feet below the mesa summit on a blisteringly hot, dry day, it felt cool within these ancient walls. It wasn’t just shade. Many places on the interior cliff walls were moist and moss-covered. Small trickles of water emerged from these glistening patches dripping down the walls into thin channels carved into the rock floor (picture above: bottom right). At the end of each channel was a small three to four-inch diameter by six-inch deep collecting well carved into the rock. No source of water was too small to be ignored.

plant life at the Valley of Fire, Nevada

Yet the ingenuity of this culture could not prevent its demise. The success of agriculture allowed the population to exceed nature’s ability to sustain human activity. The trees on the mesa’s summit created a temperature differential in the atmosphere that encouraged the formation of life-giving thunder storms, but they also provided fuel and building material for the thriving agrarian economy. By 1150, the very success of that economy had denuded the mesa resulting in a precipitous drop in rainfall. Archaeological evidence tells a disastrous story of drought, increasing civil strife and, finally, abandonment. There is even evidence of defensive fortifications being the last building projects in the cliff towns. Within a century, human habitation on the mesa top and the cliffs came to an end.

                     Lake Mead – over 130 feet below original levels

Every day in the Southwest the newspapers print articles concerning water. Legal battles are fought over resource rights among farmers, ranchers and land developers. Political battles rage among municipalities, states and the Federal government over river allocations and who’s going to pay for the projects. Environmentalist and economic growth interests ask Courts to rule on the advantages or damages caused by past and future dam projects.

Red Rock State Park, Nevada


The national and state park services not only take vigilant preservation seriously but make scientific research of these complex ecosystems a high priority. Practical applications from this research are evident in both water conservation technology used in Park facilities and eradication of water sucking invasive plants, such as Cottonwood trees, that were introduced to the environment in the last century by well-intentioned economic interests.

                                                               cottonwood trees

On the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, is the elegant El Monte Sagrado Resort . It’s a modern hacienda with artistically appointed guest rooms, expensive spa and stunning dining facilities. Everything surrounds an oasis of native and tropical plants complete with a wide meandering creek crossed by bridges and punctuated with fountains and waterfalls. But appearances can deceive. Among the magnificent vegetation are odd, sculpted metal “trees” whose “flowers” are photo electric cells. The collected energy operates the pumps and the extensive decorative lighting. The hotel has its own on-site treatment facility that purifies and recycles all waste water. It’s used to irrigate the garden and create all its water features. Brochures explaining the green philosophy of management are conspicuously placed for guests to read. Yet resorts like this are the exception. Las Vegas’ Bellagio with its massive water fountain display within an artificial lake are more the norm.

      monument at Hoover Dam to workers who died on construction – 1931-35

Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America and sacred ground to the Puebloan culture. Only a limited number of outsiders are allowed to visit the mesa and must be accompanied by a native guide who conducts a well-disciplined tour. Because of the sacred nature of the site, visitors must adhere to strict rules governing photography and following the directions of the tour guide. Only in modern times has electricity been available and a road built allowing cars and trucks access to the top of the mesa. In previous centuries, the plains that surround the mesa were farmed providing food for the Pueblo. Now the food comes from grocery stores on the reservation. Coal fueled electricity, in this land of perpetual sun that could generate both solar and wind energy, run the air conditioners in the adobe dwellings. The Mesa is devoid of all vegetation. It’s hot, dusty and crowded. Blue plastic port-o-potties dot the village. In ancient days, farm fields were fertilized with both animal and human waste. Port-o-potties use chemicals that without proper treatment contaminate ground water. The Mesa of Acoma is sacred, photography of most sites, as well as lingering after the tour, is forbidden, but port-o-potties are a fact of modern Native American life.

                  Hoover Dam – a Great Depression make-work government project

Hoover Dam is a modern cathedral radiating energy in a most tangible form. Throngs of visitors make a pilgrimage to this art deco monument to 20th century engineering. Graceful angels are poised on the very rim of the dam in testimony to the beauty and power that silences the crowds as they stare, transfixed, at the silver glint on the blue water of Lake Mead. Like the trees of Mesa Verde, this dam is the economic engine of a culture. This tax-payer built Federal Depression-era make-work project was a resounding success for Sin City’s boom and is the artery through which Las Vegas lives today.  It’s sacred ground. Yet water levels in Lake Mead have been declining since 2000 and are nearly at historic lows. In a 2008 report on the status of Lake Mead, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict there is a 50% probability that Lake Mead will be completely dry by 2021 due to climate change, population growth and unsustainable overuse of Colorado River water. The report concluded “Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis are a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region”.

(below right) Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry


 The clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and innocent sin still clung to the hot air in the Las Vegas airport as I watched both arriving and departing passengers drop seemingly endless quarters into the slot machines. It all made sense. Whether it’s two bucks for a pint of water, wave machines in a desert, Court battles over water rights, port-o-potties on sacred land, a dam to sustain a city or villages built a thousand feet into the sky, we humans like to gamble. We’ll continue to take a chance at beating the odds.