The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that up to 35% of the Earth’s drylands are degraded, which impacts 1 billion people worldwide.
Fighting Drought and Desertification in Nevada
Desertification is the process by which land is stripped of its nutrients via natural or man-made occurances. In an already arid climate, desertification can be caused by drought, deforestation, or agricultural practices that demand too much of the land.
The United Nations hosted the annual Desertification and Drought Day on June 17, 2021. The aim of this day is to bring awareness to transforming deserted land into a viable landscape for growth. According to the United Nations, about ¾ of the Earth (not covered in ice) has been manipulated by mankind. We cultivate the land to grow food, we harvest materials for building structures and creating consumer products, and we create infrastructure to travel.
As a result, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) calls for action; its mission is to teach people about treating land as the precious and finite resource that it is.
While the changes made by humans can serve beneficial purposes, if not done with thoughts of the future, they’re harmful. It destroys ecosystems. It deprives people and animals of the resources they need to thrive in their native land.
Desertification in Nevada
In response to years of drought, in 2021 Nevada proposed a ban on “non-functional” grass in areas such as parking strips or office buildings. If the grass isn’t serving a purpose (residential yard, golf course, or recreational facility), it doesn’t need to become a drain on resources. This ban applies to 40% of the grass in Las Vegas alone. Grass that is purely decorative wastes 12 billion gallons of Colorado River water each year in Southern Nevada.
Las Vegas used to be fed primarily by underground springs, which is where it got its name, “the meadow.” Now, Las Vegas has to get 90% of its water supply from the Colorado River, and the remaining 10% is from groundwater in the valley.
Sourcing water from the Colorado River has far-reaching effects. Lake Mead is suffering from overextended use as a watershed; according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the water level has dropped 130 feet since the year 2000. This is evident to anyone who flies into Nevada and sees the water rings on the rocks surrounding the Lake.
How Nevada Fights Drought
Although the population has grown steadily in Nevada, water conservation efforts have been successful. Despite the influx of residents, casinos, and tourists (780,000 people are recorded as moving to Vegas between 2002 and 2020), water consumption was reduced by 47%.
Some key steps for reducing water consumption in Southern Nevada are outlined as follows:
- Reduce the use of non-functional grass/turf
- Use technology to make watering more efficient
- Mediate leaks in a timely manner
Protecting Land with Plants
Nurturing native plants is one of the best ways to fight desertification. There was an effort in Africa to plant 4,000 trees to combat a spreading desert, however, the plan was a flop because the trees chosen were never meant to survive on the Sahara. Instead of forcing foreign vegetation with the “Great Green Wall” project, the African Union has instead created a “mosaic of land use.” Viewed from above, the land is dotted with greenery that can survive with as little as four inches of rain per year.
In Nevada, native plants that can thrive during droughts and help fight famine include:
- Bee Balm
- Desert Marigold
- Rocky Mountain Maple
- Virginia Creeper
- White Spruce
- Black-Eyed Susan
- Flowering Crabapples
- Saucer Magnolia
- Texas Bluebell
- Western Columbine
The right plants benefit the soil, the carbon cycle, humans, and the animals who rely on them for food and shelter. Before you commit to landscaping for your home or business, be sure to research which plants are native to your area, and can help with water conservation efforts and land rehabilitation.
Did you know that water used indoors in Nevada can be recycled, eventually returning to Lake Mead after treatment? Southern Nevada earns Return-Flow credits for water that is successfully redistributed to the water supply. Every gallon returned earns Nevada a new gallon to use again. However, only about 40% of water usage occurs indoors. The other 60% is consumed outside, and some of that evaporates and cannot be recycled for Return-Flow credits. Therefore, it’s imperative that outdoor water use is limited to what is essential, and that every resident and business does their part to conserve.
Some Nevada residents may claim that grass helps cool the landscape. While this is true, there are more water-efficient ways to avoid cooling outdoor areas. Trees provide shade that more effectively cools the ground below, and they use less water. If you’re concerned about providing an inviting place for people to gather, provide ground cover from above with natural (tree canopies) or synthetic (sun sails, umbrellas, or pergolas) sunshades.
Supporting Water Conservation Efforts in Nevada
Also in 2021, Nevada introduced the Large Scale Water Recycling and Drought Resiliency Investment Act. This mouthful of a bill aims to offer grants for large-scale recycling efforts in western states. If these arid areas don’t have funding to support water conservation, they cannot be sustained and it’s easy for the community to get frustrated and give up.
Besides water conservation, what can be done?
Soil biodiversity is one of the keys to preserving existing drylands or bringing them back to life. Rotating crops helps avoid soil depletion and erosion, as does keeping grazing herds on the move. Arid climates aren’t the only places at risk of desertification, either. These practices can help save ecosystems across the globe.
In Freeport, Maine, for example, a desert exists among the pines of this Northeastern coastal town. A large glacial deposit of glacial silt was hidden beneath rich topsoil for thousands of years. In the early 1800s, a farmer purchased the land and raised livestock while growing crops. Unintentionally, the crops and grazing animals depleted the land of protective flora, resulting in erosion that eventually uncovered the glacial silt below. The farmers couldn’t fight the desert that was slowly being exposed across their land, so they eventually abandoned the eara. The Desert of Maine has grown to 40 acres, and the sand has consumed buildings, stripped trees of their bark, and become a popular tourist attraction. But, it should serve as a reminder that irresponsible land use in any climate can be detrimental.