The Politics of Water

D. G. Lorenzi's public protest of Emergency Water Ordinance No. 247, printed in the Las Vegas Review Journal, July 26, 1939

“I have a fight on my hands, and McWilliams threatens my Post Office position, but I am fighting for principle and the rights of the company and am not fearful of the threats of any crank . . .”

Walter Bracken  to J. Ross Clark, letter, June 4, 1912

“I am trying my best to avoid any clashes with the local health authorities or City Commission.”

Bracken to E.E. Calvin, letter, July 10, 1923

“We are a public utility, and are under the direction of the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada. We are also operating under a twenty-five year franchise, and through advice from our Legal Department, we want to do everything we can to protect that Franchise, as it is a very liberal one for us.”

Walter Bracken to Eugene McAuliffe, President of the UP Water Co., Rock Springs Wyoming, letter, March 1, 1929

 “The President [of the UP] now advised that as there is a surplus of water that can be used for domestic and city purposes when the growth of the city demands, it will not be necessary at this time to consider installation of meters involving considerable expenditures. He has reached the conclusion we should at as early a date as practicable take steps to obtain an INCREASE in the water rates . . . of  100% in the present flat rates; reserving however, the right to proceed with the installation of meters at a later date if such action becomes necessary to conserve the available supply . . . “

F.H. Knickerbocker to F.R. McNamee, letter, June 13, 1929

“Regarding some inquiry of the Nevada Public Service Commission of the operations of the Las Vegas Land and Water  Company.  I do not see that there is any action that should be taken at this time. Am interested, however, in knowing what the situation might be if some organization of citizens or others should make an effort to acquire by condemnation or otherwise, the water system of the LVL&W.”

Knickerbocker to E.E. Bennett, letter, October 14, 1934

 “. . . I agree that there is nothing that we can do at this time, unless possibly a quiet campaign should be started to attempt to kill the proposed action.”

Bennett to Knickerbocker,letter, October 20, 1934

“Article in Labor correct, except proposal on ballot referred only to powers system.  At recent city election entire board running on platform vigorously advocating municipal ownership both light and water facilities and since their installation June 1 still active in same cause. . . efforts made did not prevent election these candidates.  . . Am advised board applied to PWA  [Public Works Administration]for $200,000 loan for municipal water system, but was able to block this for time being thru PWA officials Reno. “

Walter Bracken to W.M. Jeffers, coded telegram, June 6, 1935

“There is no doubt that we should secure remedial legislation at the next session of the legislature. As a matter of fact we endeavored to do that at the last session and you will recall that the attempt died on the vine due to certain representations of the Las Vegas people which I understand they have not kept. I believe the present law [prohibiting customer water meters] could be repealed, but if not I see no reason why it could not be amended so as to permit meters on commercial and industrial properties . . “

E.E. Bennet to F.H. Knickerbocker, letter, June 27, 1936

“I recommend that the LVL&W Co. continue to own and use at present its water distribution system, for the reason that operations are carried on with a substantial measure of profit, and indications are that this condition will continue . . The day may come when we should sell our plant to the city of Las Vegas, but that time has not arrived. Our water rates are reasonable; our present service appears to satisfy, and so long as we continue our recent policy of extending distribution mains wherever reasonable inducement offers, municipal ownership is not likely to become a pressing issue. Neither the city nor ourselves would benefit from municipal ownership under existing conditions.  . .  Maintenance of friendly relations with the city officers and leading men of Las Vegas should be made an unvarying rule in order to prevent  causes of irritation as far as possible . . . ”

W.H. Hulsizer, Manager of Properties, UP, Omaha, Report on the Las Vegas Nevada Water Supply, March 25, 1942

“petitions are now being circulated in Las Vegas authorizing creation of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, as outlined in the newspaper clipping I sent you October 17 . . At the Rotary meeting today, attended by about 100 principal businessmen of the town, Archie Grant circulated one of the petitions and made an explanatory speech . . . and stated that development here would be definitely limited without the creation of this Water District, as the Union Pacific had stated it was not interested in bringing water from Lake Mead.“

A.M. Folger to Frank Strong, letter, November 6, 1947

“ . . . Unless it can be shown that Union Pacific would be damaged by completion of the Water District, I am opposed to our taking any position in the matter as it is my opinion that the value to Union Pacific of a continuing development in the area would be much greater than the revenue we are presently earning from the water utility, and in any case, even if it should later be found necessary or advisable for us to oppose the development of the water district, I think this could be accomplished without our appearing too prominently in the matter. . .  I strongly recommend that we keep hands off of this argument until such time as the development of the plan indicates clearly where our best interests lie . .  I suggest that your reply to Mr. Cragin’s letter be noncommittal as far as any suggestions as to what action the city should take, perhaps advising him that we are of course vitally interested in the development of the area and that it is our desire to assist all possible in any activity which would tend to expand the industrial and other developments.”

William Reinhardt, Vice President UP System to G.F. Ashby, telegram, October 11, 1948


What interactions and interests existed between the Las Vegas Land and Water Company and Union Pacific in terms of policy, legislation, economics, and diplomacy and what were the positive and negative ramifications of those interactions?

“[Mayor Cragin] stated his policy in the past, whenever the question of municipal ownership of water or power facilities arose, had been to discourage it because while it might work alright at first, it eventually became a political football, to the detriment of the community. . .we feel that we should avoid taking sides in the controversy, as nothing can be gained by making enemies of either the County or City officials. However in replying to Mayor Cragin you may wish to advise him that we concur in his thought that water produced in the city should be used in the City, and in fact that has been the policy of the Water Company.”

A.M. Folger to F.G. Ashby, letter, October 11, 1948

 “ . . .  While our company has thus far maintained an attitude of neutrality, considerable opposition to the plan has developed on part of some of our local citizens because of the vagueness of the costs, the quality of the water from the lake, and a reluctance to permit water produced within the city limits to be used outside the city limits to supply gambling resorts on “The Strip” south of the city limits.”

Folger to W.F. Harp, letter, June 18, 1949

The economic fortunes of the railroad’s Land and Water Company and the growing town, were inextricably bound together although their interests often diverged, and sometimes clashed, sometimes openly and in public. The Union Pacific Railroad, through the Water Company, was truly committed to providing the city with adequate and pure water at a reasonable cost. But as the cost of constructing, maintaining, and extending the water system to outlying subdivisions and districts and industrial tracts rose, and the demands on a limited natural water supply increased, these clashes became sharper, as the private interests of the railroad were seen by the city often as too conservative and unresponsive while the railroad perceived profligate water use, waste, and over-extension of water lines simply for the profit of ‘wild cat’ real estate speculators and housing developers. There was truth in both view points. The railroad was fiscally conservative and the town and its developers were making excessive demands on a limited system with a declining natural supply of water.


Considering the boom and bust cycles common in Southern Nevada, did the end of the railroad monopoly suggest anything about Las Vegas and its surrounding communities?

Matters came to a head after the construction and population boom of the Second World War, when the railroad, townspeople, and scientists acknowledged the water shortage and the inadequacy of the ground water supply and distribution system to support the growth the city was promoting. The cries for public ownership of the water system which rose occasionally in times of acute water shortages, became politically viable when in 1947 the Nevada Legislature passed enabling legislation for the creation of a “Water District’ in the Las Vegas Valley with the intention of augmenting the Water Company’s water supply from springs and wells, with access to Lake Mead. Making the water district a reality took time and tortuous negotiations both through public meetings, petitions, elections and the passing of public bond issues as well as agreements with the railroad for the appraisal and sale of its facilities. In 1954, The Las Vegas Valley Water District formally took possession of the Land and Water Company system, ending an era of railroad monopoly.