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A new book on water in the Southwest flounders from the author’s uncritical embrace of the official story

Adam McKay’s 2015 film The Big Short, based on financial journalist Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, ends with a postscript telling what became of the story’s real-life characters. The final one shown is Michael Burry, a Northern California investment genius who was among the first to recognize the looming subprime mortgage crisis. Today, an onscreen caption tells us, “Michael Burry is focusing all of his trading on one commodity: water.”

Burry and everyone who’s interested in the world’s most precious commodity should read New Yorker writer David Owen’s book, Where the Water Goes (Riverhead, $28), out this month. It’s a comprehensive cultural, hydrological and legal history — cleverly hung on a travelogue’s narrative structure — that delivers what it promises: a literal tracing (by air, land and water) of the Colorado River from origin to destination, including its endless diversions, extractions and pollutions in between. But the two chapters on Las Vegas at the book’s center might leave locals wondering if Owen’s big picture blurred a few boots-on-the-ground details.

GutterIt would be petty to nitpick the author for describing Mandalay Bay as being in “downtown” Las Vegas, given the dozens of research hours that obviously went into his account of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and their relationship to Bellagio’s fountains and the city’s urban sprawl. But his uncritical embrace of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s public-relations message that the city is a paragon of conservation is disappointing.

“The Bellagio fountains are often cited as a prime example of the wanton waste that got the West into water trouble in the first place,” he writes. “But all this is wrong. … The Southern Nevada Water Authority … has implemented some of the most stringent conservation measures in the United States. … The SNWA also has a long-running ‘xeriscaping’ program, which pays people to replace turf with desert plantings. ... Residents are fined if they water yards and gardens on days when they’re not supposed to or if they allow water to run onto sidewalks or into the street. …”

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Really? I invite Owen to join me for my morning dog walk Downtown where, on any given weekday, I count three or four homes where lawn sprinklers are spraying the cement, the owners apparently oblivious to my repeated calls to the water authority’s waste hotline. Or to drive around any central Vegas neighborhood on a Sunday and see people washing their cars with garden hoses. Or to take an “urban drool tour” of the city with University of Arizona lecturer and water management researcher Brad Lancaster, who, on such a tour here a few years ago, pointed out the countless gallons that pool in gutters and go up in vapor due to outdated infrastructure and decorative features like Lake Las Vegas.

That’s not to say that everything the SNWA told Owen isn’t true. Yes, the agency cut the city’s water usage even as population grew. Yes, Bellagio gets its fountain water from an underground aquifer rather than the river. But this doesn’t mutually exclude the larger, more urgent truth that Las Vegans are poor water stewards, mainly because they pay a relative pittance for water. And that matters for the very reason Owen seems to try to negate: A public that’s lulled into thinking it’s doing all right won’t change its behavior. It will keep building and growing and using an over-allocated resource. It will, in ways large and small, wantonly waste.

To be sure, Owen suggests this throughout the book, including in his conclusion of the chapter about Las Vegas, where he quotes former SNWA boss Patricia Mulroy as saying, “Either we all win, or we all lose.” But I would add that complacency, at this point, is losing. And most Western communities — including Las Vegas — are still complacent.

Mortgages always went up, until they didn’t. Just ask Burry, who’s now putting his money on food production in places that don’t depend on Colorado River water.