Magazine article Sunset

Water and Roots

Magazine article Sunset

Water and Roots

Article excerpt

To get to the springs, you drive north from the Strip on U.S. 95 a mile or two. Then, across from a large shopping center, you find an unexpected plot of open land and a dirt road ambling toward creosote trees. At the old spring house, you can peer through broken rafters to a bed of white sand, from which a cottonwood tree emerges bearing green leaves.

"There it is," J.C. Davis says. "Here is where it all began."

"It" is the city of Las Vegas: the citadel of the sequined showgirl, the va-va-va-- vroom hotel, the red-tile-roofed housing developments sprawling halfway to Phoenix. "Here" is the portion of the Las Vegas Valley Water District's North Well Field known as Las Vegas Springs Preserve. And, yes, all of it came from here.

"We're in the Mojave Desert," says Kim Zukosky Like Davis, she works for the water district; she has been managing the springs project for the last three years. "The driest desert in America. When you have a place like this, people flock to it."

People flocking to water is the essential story of the springs. A patch of green surrounded by hundreds of miles of aridity, the springs have drawn human visitors for at least 6,000 years, says preserve archaeologist Greg Seymour. Early users included the Patayan and Anasazi peoples and the Southern Paiute. In the early 1800s, the springs were a vital stop on the Old Spanish Trail from Los Angeles to New Mexico. They were called las vegas, or the meadows, for the greenery they nurtured.

At that time the greenery was mostly mesquite and creosote. What you notice now are cottonwoods, descendants of trees planted by Latter-day Saints, who established a mission here in 1855. The Mormons were Las Vegas's first permanent white settlers-meaning, among other things, that the tie between Brigham Young and the Siegfried & Roy show is stronger than one might expect. In 1900 came the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad: Steam locomotives required water to refill. A railroad town grew up, and everything else followed.

We walk around. The springs are not what they used to be-one Mormon missionary described artesian wells so powerful a person could not sink in them "on account of the strong upward .rush of the water." Now, after decades during which Las Vegas has tapped into them (hence the presence of spring houses and filtration plants), the springs are kept underground by a lowered water table. …

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