It took many years, billions of dollars, and some lives lost for this desert city to finally protect itself from rampaging water
Las Vegans have been coping with flash floods since the town came into being in 1905. In the early years, the biggest problem was not flooded intersections, it was damaged railroad tracks. The Las Vegas economy revolved around the railroad, and if the trains couldn’t move, the town couldn’t function. A report in the Las Vegas Age from January 1910 illustrates the dire implications of a railroad washout:
“Heavy flood damage to the Meadow Valley Wash area was inflicted by torrential rains and melting snow. … The narrow valley was unable to carry the flood water in the usual channels, and … houses, barns, and, in some cases, whole ranches were overwhelmed. The track of the Salt Lake railroad, on which was spent about one million dollars in building substantial bridges and putting in expensive rip-rap work after the washouts of three years ago, was practically a wreck for a distance of nearly one hundred miles. Thousands of railroad ties, great bridge timbers, portions of houses, and wreckage of every conceivable kind was carried for many miles by the flood. … Fifteen miles west of Caliente, an entire train (carrying merchandise), engine and all, was overwhelmed and washed away with the exception of the caboose. The crew escaped by taking to the hills.”
About 20 years later, a flood raging through Las Vegas had a more significant effect on automobile travel. In August 1928, the Age reported:
“The new Boulder City highway suffered the greatest damage in southern Nevada, a wall of water having poured over it for some time at a point about four miles from Las Vegas, endangering the lives of a party of four who attempted to drive thru on Saturday evening. … The road from Charleston Boulevard across to the Reno Highway by way of the Filby Ranch was washed out so badly, travel was completely barred until repairs are made.”
In July 1932, a flood in the southeast valley resulted in the deaths of two people, according to the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal:
“The storm inflicted the greatest damage to property on the Boulder Dam Highway between Midway City and Sunset. Thousands of dollars in damage was done to homes and business buildings in this area. Two persons were believed killed, Mrs. A. Grimes and a man whose name could not be ascertained, when their car was overturned by the rushing water.”
Today, when a big storm approaches, Las Vegans no longer assume heavy flood waters will turn the streets into raging rivers or deluge houses to the kneecaps. An almost $2 billion flood control system, largely built over the past three decades, has essentially put an end to disastrous and deadly flash floods in Clark County. Fingers crossed.
Severe floods were a fact of life in Las Vegas from the beginning, and efforts to reduce their impact were meager and uncoordinated during the community’s first 80 years. Even after the town became a full-fledged city in the 1940s and ’50s, flood control remained an afterthought. Jarvis Marlow summarized the problem in a UNLV master’s thesis on the history of flood control in Las Vegas:
“Engineers … designed the early flood control measures to protect homes from the rainfall that fell within a neighborhood’s boundaries. Contractors built channels and pipes to convey upstream storm water away from their homes, with no regard for the downstream properties. Little thought was given to connecting flood control structures across the growing metro network.”
The notion of regional flood control briefly gathered momentum in 1962 when Clark County asked voters to approve a $6 million bond issue. Approval would have guaranteed another $26 million in federal money. But voters rejected it soundly.
A massive flood in July 1975 — which made national headlines by destroying 300 cars in a Caesars Palace parking lot — prompted some local officials to start thinking again about a regional solution. Thinking, but not acting. After some major flooding in 1981, Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury lobbied the 1983 state Legislature to establish a regional flood control district.
“We were not successful that year,” Woodbury says. “Nobody thought it was that big a deal.”
The turning point finally came in 1983 and 1984, when Las Vegas was pummeled by multiple storms, resulting in millions of dollars of damage and, more importantly, the deaths of nine people. The most horrific incident occurred in September 1984, when a family of five perished. Michael Shepard, 27, and his wife, Carol, 26, were driving home from dinner with their three young children when they encountered a 60-foot-wide, 30 mph flow of flood water near Blue Diamond Road.
As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, the Shepards watched the water for a while before making the decision to try to drive through it to reach their home, which was only about 100 yards away. Their pickup truck was immediately swept away by the four-foot-deep torrent. Rescue crews found the bodies of the parents and two older children, Shanna, 6, and Shad, 3, right away. It took several hours to find the two-week-old infant, Sheila, whose body was a considerable distance from the truck.
The death of the infant girl, in particular, captured the full attention of Jim McGaughey, a freshman state assemblyman.
“I decided I was going to do something about flood control,” McGaughey recalls.
In the 1985 legislative session, McGaughey sponsored Assembly Bill 169 to create the Clark County Regional Flood Control District. The genius of the legislation was the makeup of the governing board. To eliminate the turf wars that had characterized past flood control efforts, the board had to be representative of all the affected jurisdictions. The bill created a board consisting of two Clark County commissioners, two Las Vegas city council members, and one representative each from Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City, and Mesquite.
The Assembly and Senate passed the bill unanimously. Governor Richard Bryan, who had grown up in Las Vegas and experienced the “annual ritual” of monsoon season flooding, eagerly signed it on June 2, 1985. “That was the finest hour I had as a legislator,” McGaughey says.
Creation of the flood control district was a major political achievement, but it was just the first piece of the puzzle. The second piece was creating a funding source for the new agency. AB169 called for a public vote on the funding mechanism in 1986.
The September 1986 primary election ballot included a question asking Clark County residents to support a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for flood control. The question was purposely placed on the September ballot because it fell within the community’s annual monsoon season.
Passage was far from guaranteed. Virginia Valentine, the flood district’s first chief engineer and general manager, noted that “we had a whole group of people who didn’t have flooding in their neighborhoods, or they had just moved to town and had never seen a flash flood. So we’re going out there trying to raise taxes for something a lot of people had never seen.”
The campaign for the quarter-cent sales tax was grassroots at its core. McGaughey, Woodbury, Valentine, citizen activists Ann Zorn and M.J. Harvey, and others made presentations to practically anyone who would give them the time. “Where two or more gathered, we were there,” Woodbury says.
Valentine recalls participating in 300 to 400 presentations. “I had these two big slide projectors. And you learned to carry a light bulb in your pocket, because it always seemed like the projector bulb burned out.” At a mobile home park on East Desert Inn Road, Valentine says, the audience consisted of “one guy in a bathrobe sitting in a lounge chair. We gave him the whole presentation.”
The shoe-leather campaign paid off, with voters approving the sales tax hike by a two-to-one margin. Tax revenue started flowing into the flood district at a rate of $1 million per month.
It was a great start, but it was not nearly enough to address the rapidly growing community’s flood control needs. The third piece of the puzzle was delivered by the 1991 Legislature, which gave the district the ability to raise more money through bond sales. Now the district had access to the kind of money it needed to tackle flood control across Clark County.
When heavy rains fall in the Spring Mountains, west of the city, that water will inevitably rush downhill into the valley’s washes. The caliche-hardened desert soil does not absorb much. But now a series of levees and detention basins redirect and capture much of the water that otherwise might flow unimpeded into neighborhoods, businesses, and streets. The flood water still eventually finds its way through the valley’s channels and storm drains into Lake Mead. But the detention basins slow the flow, and the channels and drains direct most of the water through and beneath the community’s built environment.
The district made substantial progress on its master plan during the 1990s, but it wasn’t nearly ready to contend with the historic downpour of 1999. July rains pounded the valley, with some areas seeing three inches. The storm led to two deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. Police and firefighters rescued 163 people from flooded areas, including eight who were plucked from danger via helicopter. Although the flood control system was still in its adolescence, officials said that without the detention basins and flood channels that had already been installed, the disaster would have been unimaginable.
“I can’t begin to estimate what would have happened if these flood controls were not in place,” Gale Fraser, then chief engineer and general manager of the flood control district, told reporters. “I know it would have been a lot worse.”
Two decades later, experts agree that if that 1999 storm occurred today, the flooding and damage would be greatly reduced. “We’re much more resilient than we were 20 years ago,” says Steven Parrish, the district’s current chief engineer and general manager. Anyone who has lived in Las Vegas since then surely can tell the difference. If nothing else, you can’t help but notice that the Charleston Boulevard underpass doesn’t flood anymore.
“Problem areas that we’ve had before are no longer problem areas now,” Parrish says. “In terms of damages to structures, we’re seeing much less to businesses and homes.”
The flood district now has an even 100 detention basins and 648 miles of channels. To date, it has spent $1.9 billion creating the system.
When the bill creating the flood control district reached Governor Bryan’s desk back in 1985, he “clearly recognized the significance of it. The magnitude I fully appreciated, but what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that it would cost close to $2 billion to get the job done. In 1985, that number would have blown me away.”
The work is not, in fact, done. The master plan calls for 36 more detention basins and 201 miles of channel. “We have 30 more years of work to do,” Parrish says.
And flooding still happens, of course. The parking garage at the Linq, formerly the Imperial Palace, continues to be a challenge. “The Flamingo Wash essentially drains right into their parking garage,” Parrish says. “It’s something we would like to fix, but it’s a difficult problem to solve because you’d have to raze the building.”
When Harrah’s Entertainment acquired the Imperial Palace in 2005, its then chairman, Gary Loveman, told investors the hotel may be torn down to make room for expansions of adjacent properties. Parrish hoped this would allow for installation of proper flood control drainage. But then the Great Recession hit, and the company opted to refurbish the aging resort instead. To this day, when the flood district detects a big storm coming, its first warning call goes to the Linq, which has well-established procedures to close the parking garage until the storm passes.
Flood risks may be at an all-time low, but the flood control district still encounters intriguing challenges from time to time. The Las Vegas Raiders stadium is the most recent example. The site selected for the stadium just happened to have a big storm drain running through it. The drain is one of the most important pieces of flood control in the valley. And this was a particularly big problem because the drain is part of a federally funded project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Any time you involve the Corps in anything, it’s 18 months to two years to get anything done,” Parrish explains. “They wanted the stadium open in 2020, so that wouldn’t work.”
The storm drain had to move, and the Army Corps had to be involved in the process. Fortunately for the stadium planners and football team, the federal agency has a provision that allows it to accept money to expedite a review. The bill for this special service: $120,000.
“This could have been a big problem,” Parrish says. “But I got on the phone with the colonel in L.A. He understood, and he really helped.”
The storm drain was shifted a little to the west and north, just beyond the stadium’s footprint. Although $120,000 is a considerable sum, it’s a pittance compared to the stadium’s $1.8 billion price tag.
Perhaps the least-talked-about benefit of the flood control district’s work is how it has fueled growth. Flood control measures have opened 54 square miles of flood zone for development across the valley. The Aliante planned community in North Las Vegas, the Skye Canyon planned community in northwest Las Vegas, and the far west side of Henderson are prime examples of former flood zones transformed into buildable land.
The flood control system in Clark County is robust and effective today, but when it was conceived in 1985, its future was far from certain. “Some people were claiming we were building a white elephant, wasting money,” Woodbury says. “They said this will be even less necessary than your expansion of the airport.”
Fortunately, Woodbury brushed off the naysayers and embraced a future Las Vegas in which a storm cloud is no longer an existential threat to life and property.
“We have saved a lot of lives,” Woodbury says. “We have saved an inestimable amount of property damage. We’ve saved commuters a lot of commute time. Flooding is much reduced in every respect.”