The Desert Reborn: Restoring the Mojave in the Middle of Las Vegas

Just mentioning Las Vegas is enough to conjure up images of neon lights and nights of excess, all the more conspicuous with its desert backdrop—Vegas just wouldn’t be Vegas if it wasn’t in the desert. But if you speak Spanish, you might know that the words “las vegas” mean “the meadows,” a fitting name for the landscape that early Spanish explorers and Mormon settlers found here in the 1800s, all fed by a powerful artesian spring. “It has been sounded to a depth of 60 feet, without finding bottom; and a person cannot sink to the armpits on account of the strong upward rush of the water,” George W. Bean, a Mormon missionary, wrote of the springs in 1856.

Beavertail cactus
Mojave yucca behind cholla cactus

These Western settlers were hardly the first to witness the abundance of the springs. Native Americans, most recently the tribe we now call the Southern Paiutes, have lived in the region for some 12,000 years. You can’t talk about the land here without remembering that the Paiutes were forced off of it and only much, much later was some land on the other side of the valley returned to them at all (UNLV anthropologist Martha C. Knack has written extensively on Southern Paiute history).

Here, in the centre of the Vegas Valley, they hunted, fished, foraged and planted corn and squash alongside these streams. Tall, water-loving cottonwoods shaded the banks, which were filled with lush grasses. Just beyond the creeks were communities of saltbush, creosote and mesquite trees.”

This is the landscape that restoration ecologist Dr. Von Winkel and his team at the Southern Nevada Water Authority have been working to bring back for the past 17 years. The land they inherited was no longer the verdant landscape of the 1800’s. Decades of pumping decimated the Vegas Valley’s underground water reserves and by the early 1960s, the artesian springs at the center of Las Vegas ran dry. Top soil was carted out to reveal the rock-hard and bone-white caliche layer beneath. Vegetation was sparse. By the time Winkel arrived, most of the 125-acre lot looked more like a gravel parking lot than a nature preserve.

Springhouse ruins

“When we went to the public and asked what they wanted, we got proposals from ‘Fence it off and leave it alone’ to ‘Disneyland,’ so we settled in the middle somewhere,” Winkel says.

Today, the property at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve is both a nature preserve and an educational space, with interpretive signs alongside trails, an educational garden and two museums. They host workshops on sustainable landscaping and bring in thousands of school children every year.

But the heart of the Preserve, its reason for being, is the desert restoration out back.”

“The Mojave Desert gets abused. It’s not as attractive as, say, the Sonoran Desert with its big saguaros and cacti, so people tend to think it’s a wasteland and just abuse it,” says Winkel. But far from being a wasteland, he says, desert plants provide important habitat for animals like kit foxes and desert tortoises. They soften the impact of rain and their roots stabilize soils, limiting the impact of erosion and dust storms. Moreover, the soils in arid lands are surprisingly effective in their absorption of atmospheric carbon, and it’s likely that plants are the vehicles of this carbon uptake.

Native grasses and catclaw acacia

It turns out that restoration work is a lot more complicated than dumping some soil and scattering some seed.

Unlike revegetation or reclamation, restoration is a taller order—it’s an effort to put the land back the way it was before human intervention.”

But not only are some areas permanently altered, it’s also a challenge to figure out what they even looked like before settlers came in. Winkel did have some human accounts of the landscape from well over a hundred years ago. He also identified reference areas, ecosystems that mirror the condition on-site and are relatively undisturbed. At these reference sites, he and his team collected data about the plant species and their distribution, as well as which plants thrive side by side. Honey mesquite trees, for example, are hosts for desert mistletoe, which in turn attract migratory birds. The animals that feed on both the mistletoe and the mesquite beans help concentrate nutrients around the trees, creating “fertile islands” where other plants, like the Las Vegas bear poppy and the Las Vegas buckwheat, can thrive.

Once Winkel had mapped out a restoration plan for each section of the site (fifty-five of them, to be exact), they got to work. The team collected seed by hand from around the Las Vegas Valley and propagated the plants in a nursery on-site. At the peak of restoration work, the nursery was producing tens of thousands of plants a year.

There is one thing missing at the Springs Preserve: The springs themselves. With the drainage of the aquifer 60 years ago, the water table has dropped and the underground pressure that once brought water to the surface is unlikely to ever come back. Instead, the water systems here are fed by overflow drainage from overwatered lawns, car washes and the occasional rainstorm. Maybe the greatest irony of the Springs Preserve is that its rebirth depends on the overconsumption that destroyed it in the first place.

But with new life comes new purpose: For one, it’s as much a water reclamation project as it is a restoration project. The main stream that runs through the property still functions as a storm drainage basin, protecting the downtown from flooding.”

The Springs Preserve also serves an important educational purpose, teaching visitors about the Valley’s first peoples, Las Vegas history, desert ecology and the importance of water conservation.

The Preserve plays another vital role. Before heading back to the entrance, we make one last stop. Here, a basin shaded by willows and cottonwoods is under construction and signs indicate it will soon be the home of the Pahrump poolfish, a small, gold-flecked creature that has nearly gone extinct. “It was only found in a single spring in Pahrump until the 1970s and a professor at UNLV literally saved the last hundred or so fish in a bucket,” Winkel tells me. The Las Vegas Valley Water District applied to the federal government to build a refugia here for the endangered fish and got approval earlier this year.

After opening to the public 10 years ago this June, the Springs Preserve will be restoring the last few sites left on the property this fall. We stood looking over a triangular corner lot wedged up against Highway 95. Pale dust swirled over the barren ground and faded sheets of newspaper clung to the chain-link fence.

It’s hard to believe that the abundant landscape we just passed through looked like this just a dozen years ago. Soon, this little corner will be filled with desert plants and, aside from some check-ups and maintenance, Winkel’s work will be done.”

“What’s different about somebody like me that restores native habitat and a horticulturist or a gardener is that I hope to work myself out of a job,” he says. “One of the biggest compliments to me is if you can’t tell I was there, then I’ve done my job.”