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We're All Citizens Of Lake Mead

“One challenge we have economically is the messaging out there. Obviously, we have challenges in the levels of the lakes where we operate. We have problems we need to fix, but when the first line you see in a newspaper is, ‘We’re out of water; the lake is dry!’ it drives customers away. It leaves people to believe they don’t want to book their next trip to the lake.”

That was Rod Taylor, regional vice president of Forever Resorts, speaking on a panel during The Business of Water summit held Aug. 28-29 at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. Taylor’s view is understandable, given that renting boats and operating tours on America’s lakes, including Mead,  is a big chunk of his company’s business. Because of that, Forever Resorts has made a public commitment to environmental stewardship. On its dedicated website,  Forever Earth, you can learn how the company reduced emissions and got green hotel and restaurant certification, for instance.
Likewise for other companies represented at the Springs last week. The common impulse to preserve lakes and rivers is partly why a group of business owners got together and formed  Protect the Flows, one of the summit’s sponsors, to begin with. It makes sense. If water-based recreation provided your livelihood,  then you wouldn’t want the water to dry up. (Protect the Flows’ tagline is, "Protect our profits.") You also, therefore, wouldn’t want Slate to illustrate its coverage of the recent  NASA-U.C. Irvine Colorado River basin study with  a series of shocking before-and-after photos spotlighting disappearing marinas, withering plant life and the infamous bathtub ring at Lake Mead.
Surely, Taylor and his compatriots understand that the depletion of the Colorado River is news. What they objected to is the lack of an accompanying acknowledgement that, despite the drought,  plenty of water remains on which to jet-ski or pilot a houseboat. A generous interpretation of their concern would be that the bathtub ring has become an emblem of loss rather than a rallying cry for conservation, their true goal. A less charitable view would be that the carbon emissions they encourage and generate, as they beef up their bottom lines,  are part of the underlying problem. Either way, they have an economic leg to stand on. Protect the Flows estimates that 5 million people recreate on the Colorado River system each year, generating $26 billion in economic output and supporting 230,000 jobs.
But there’s a more interesting facet to the criticism of the media’s drought coverage, as voiced at the summit by Brookings Institution and DRI senior fellow Pat Mulroy, during her presentation:

“As I've been reading news reports, I don't know whether to laugh, cry or shake my head. Hyperbole is one thing, but the kinds of misrepresentations I've been reading lately are more counter-productive than anything I've ever read. For some reason, the notion out there is that the only place that's going to suffer from the decline of Lake Mead is Las Vegas. ... What happens in Lake Mead affects everyone in the basin. As an aside to my friends in California and Arizona, who already realize it, with the completion of our third intake, we'll be able to take water out of Lake Mead at a level beyond that at which there's nothing left to flow downstream. So, when all the other water is gone, we'll still be able to draw from Lake Mead.

It’s doubtful that journalists covering the drought have lied. But Mulroy does point to a legitimate problem: the tendency of reporters who parachute in just long enough  to get their story to link declining levels at Lake Mead solely to Las Vegas. The truth is bigger and much more complicated. As Mulroy went on to say in her presentation, the fountains at Bellagio, the almond orchards of the San Joaquin Delta, the alfalfa being exported to China, the snow-making machines in the Colorado Rockies — all are responsible.
And, she offered a solution:

“I challenge you today, as you listen to panels and speakers, to think of yourselves in a different context. We all say, ‘I’m a citizen of Las Vegas. I live in Denver, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City,’ and we identify with the state we come from. But you’re one more thing: You’re citizens of a basin, an inextricably linked group of economies and people whose future is interconnected whether we can get our heads around it or not. What happens in Denver matters in Vegas.”

From this perspective, Rod Taylor’s complaint strikes a chord. The Lake Mead resort industry is part of the Las Vegas economy, which is in turn a component of the  larger basin society. We writers and photographers should no more ignore the bathtub ring than we should naively parrot the good-news version of events that people with money at stake try to feed us. Instead, we simply have to remember the great spider web of communities that reverberates with every movement — constructive or destructive — from every sector.
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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2024, Heidi was promoted to managing editor, charged with overseeing the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsrooms.