Monday, September 29, 2014

Living in a Desert Island

I live in Las Vegas, Nevada. Yes, that Las Vegas. No, I don't visit the casinos or the hotels or travel down the "Strip" or even cross it any more than I have to. It's not that I have anything against it, it's just that I live in the "other" part of Las Vegas, the real Las Vegas. It's the one that you see as you fly into town to visit those casinos or that you pass as you drive in on the Interstate and wonder, "Who would actually choose to live in the desert?"

In some ways, most of us who live here actually like the idea that the 34 million people who visit our city each year for vacations, fun weekends, conventions, weddings (yep, that's a big deal here, too), or just coming to take part in some world-class rock climbing, do so in a relatively small area of town. Very few of our visitors actually take the time to venture out into the suburbs, which start about a block off of the strip in any direction. That makes for a relatively quiet city.

One thing that you'll notice if you do fly into town is that we don't have any agricultural areas surrounding the urban area. You won't fly over big, green fields of grain or alfalfa or farms of vegetables or ranches or even those big wheel irrigation fields that dominate the western farming landscape.
This is a great view of Las Vegas with Mt. Charleston in the background (Elevation nealy 12,000 feet) and Lake Mead with Hoover Dam in the foreground. The dam is at the bottom. All brown, tan, empty desert as far as the eye can see.

No, you'll see only tan and brown desert interspersed with the occasional beige-to-white dry lake bed and broken up by north-south mountain ranges. That's it. And it's those colors because we don't grow anything in the area. It's a desert which, by definition, means we have a dearth of fresh water available. The whole state gets only an average of about 7 inches of rain a year. Doing a flyover will show some disks of green near some of the underground aquifers and some green in the bottom lands near those same water sources, but by and large, it is not a garden state by any means.
This is Red Rock, just west of town. Still brown.

We have about 2.75 million folks in the state, with about 1.9 million in Clark County, where I live. That makes for a very sparsely populated state.

But since we don't produce food here, how do we feed the 36 million mouths that annually come to my town?

It's easy, we bring it in on trucks. Everything comes in on trucks.

There is one road coming into Las Vegas from the north or south. That's Interstate-15. We're 4 hours from Los Angeles which means we have close access to everything that California produces. It just has to get put on a truck and it's coming up the road. We're 6 hours from Salt Lake City, which means that anything produced in the intermountain region is coming down the same road. US 95 joins us with Phoenix, also about 6 hours away, but less comes in from that direction than from California and Utah.

A precarious position to be sure.

This past several weeks have been interesting. We had about a 2-hour rain storm hit just north of town and it took out I-15. Literally washed it away. No traffic was moving. It took several days to get that road open again for car traffic and a couple more for the trucks to be allowed on it. In the meantime, trucks had to take a detour that cost a lot in time, fuel and drivers. They had to detour around the mountains and up some older roads to get around the disaster area.
That nice new river bed in the center of the picture used to be a divided, 4-lane highway. Now it's just sand and chunks of asphalt.

Normally, the route from Las Vegas to Cedar City, Utah is 177 miles along a fast-moving interstate. That would normally have taken about 2 and a half hours. The route they had to take was up US 93 and then across the US 56 to Cedar. That was more than 4, closer to 5 hours or double the time for just that short distance. Many trucks were cancelled until the road opened again.
This is looking north about 45 minutes north of Las Vegas. Nobody was getting through at that time.

Now, we don't get nearly as much food into this valley from the north as we do from the south. California is a much larger trading partner, if you will, than is Utah. So what would happen if the same thing were to occur in the other direction?

Well, depending on where the break happened, it could completely shut down vehicle traffic as I-15 is the ONLY road in some places between here and there. That would mean that traffic would need to detour as much as 300 miles to make the trip, over much slower roads. If that corridor were to be shut down for a week, there wouldn't be much on the shelves of the grocery stores.

I've mentioned before in this blog about a truckers' strike that happened more than 30 years ago and really crippled this town. The supermarkets were empty in 3 days. Not even bug spray was left on the shelves. It was all gone. No food, no paper goods, no cleaning supplies, no toilet paper. Nothing. It was scary.

Now, once the strike was settled, which happened in a week or two, it took another two or three weeks to stock everything back up again. People still bought everything in sight. Fear is a powerful thing. It was a couple of months before people stopped panic buying.

Now, this year's floods didn't have that kind of impact; the damage was in the wrong area. But it could have very easily. Good thing home production and storage is a good concept to live by.

I'm glad we live that way.

This last weekend, it rained again. Took out I-15 just north of town. Again.

Who knew it could happen twice in one month?

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