If you’re looking for a sign of the end times, here’s one: Las Vegas, the city where seemingly anything and everything is tolerated, has made weed – the kind of ornamental plants – illegal.
Much of the West is experiencing the worst drought in decades, a “mega-drought” that sparked early forest fires and severe water shortages – and the seasonal heat has barely started. “There’s a 100 percent chance it will get worse before it gets better,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Times graphic editor Nadja Popovich today. “We have to get through the whole long, dry summer.”
Lake Mead, which sits on the Colorado River (behind the Hoover Dam) and provides 90 percent of the water supply for Las Vegas and southern Nevada, hit its lowest capacity this week since it was founded in the 1930s. And several states that draw their water in strict allotments from the Colorado River face severe restrictions on urban and agricultural use.
“We are at an existential point in the West right now,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the non-profit Great Basin Water Network, in a telephone conversation. “Even basic terminology that was once taken for granted – now we are seeing a shift in the nomenclature towards the statement: Well, we are not in a period of drought, we are in a period of drought.”
Enter the drought, leave the grass. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak has just signed Bill AB356, which will remove all “non-working turf” from the Las Vegas Valley by 2027. The effort will save approximately 10 percent of the region’s annual water allocation from the Colorado River. “It’s a really good time to come up with something like this,” said Mr. Roerink, whose organization was part of a bipartisan coalition, including the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, which supported the bill.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has not yet formed a committee that will define “non-functional turf”. At the moment, the category roughly describes the few thousand acres of grass that carpets the area’s street meridians, office parks, and housing developments, and makes up approximately one-third of all grass in the region.
“The best way to describe it is that it is a type of grass that is only used when someone is pushing a lawnmower over it,” said Mr Roerink. “Another abbreviation that was widely spoken during this legislature was ‘useless grass’.” (This other supposedly useful grass – in parks, schools, golf courses, and family lawns – is still allowed, at least for the time being.)
“Non-functional lawn” – the sentence is an existential knot. Is it redundant or an oxymoron? Either way, it perfectly embodies our distorted relationship with nature: some grass is good, some is bad, and everything (except the species that grow wild in meadows) is developed and curated by us.
The challenge is not excessive grass, but excessive people. Southern Nevada has seen explosive growth in recent years, and water use has increased more than 9 percent since 2018. Eliminating “useless” grass is a good first step, said Roerink, but he was concerned that the water savings would simply translate into an argument for redevelopment (with useful grass, no doubt).
“Where are the limits of the Mojave Desert?” He said. “You know, some of the areas that Vegas is trying to develop have desert turtle habitats and there aren’t many good desert turtle habitats left. What does the future look like? “
The basic question is: what is considered a “functional” or non-useless species? Humanity seems determined to find out. We have a knack for finding and settling in the harshest of environments, from the Amazon to the Antarctic. Lately it’s space, with Mars as the ultimate destination. On Monday, billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos announced that he would soon venture into orbit and beat billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk to the limit (unless billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson gets there earlier).
It should be noted that Mars has no functional or other grass and no discernible life of any kind. (Earth’s deserts, including the Mojave, are where Mars rovers practice.) If Mars colonists are lucky, they could dig up something like the microscopic, multicellular rotifers that scientists recently recovered from the Siberian permafrost . The tiny animals – resistant to radiation, extreme acidity, starvation, lack of oxygen, and dehydration – were effectively frozen for 24,000 years, but they immediately revived and began to reproduce.
“They are the most resilient animals in the world to almost any form of torture,” Matthew Meselson, a molecular biologist at Harvard, told the Times. “They’re probably the only animals we know that could do pretty well in space.”
The last time the rotifers were out, woolly mammoths roamed the planet, including what is now the Las Vegas Valley. To the extent that mammoths thought something, they probably had a very strong opinion about who was a “functional” species and who was not. Unfortunately we will never find out.
What we’ve been metabolizing lately
Science in the Times, 90 years ago today
MALINTA, Ohio – A terrible shock shook six Ohio counties today, shook homes in dozens of cities in this state and Indiana, and woke thousands of people asleep. Tonight, the crowds reaching Malinta as the center of the shock were confused as to whether it was caused by an explosion or the fall of a giant meteor.
Sensing that something extraordinary had happened, droves of motorists drove from many places to find out the cause. A strange hole half a mile from Malinta on State Route 109 was the focus of the crowd. …
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