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Water Shortage

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This set focuses on the seemingly never ending work of Walter Bracken to negotiate between the the Union Pacific Railroad and citizens of the Las Vegas Valley. With population growth came increased water needs that resulted in water shortage and, ultimately, conflict. Through Bracken, the railroad attempted to meet the needs of the growing city while water waste consistently interfered with their efforts.

Educator Resources

Activity Suggestions

Discussion Questions

  • During wartime, is it acceptable to place extra burdens on natural resources?
  • What constitutes "overuse" of water? What constitutes "waste" of water? Are the terms interchangeable?
  • Should community leaders dissuade population growth in urban, arid environs? If so, how should they go about doing so?
  • Pretend you are on the county commission while reviewing the 1930 artifacts within this kit. Outline a plan for stopping water waste at the time.
  • Review all artifacts in this kit through 1949; then, separate students into three groups. The first, and smallest, group will be reporters. The other two groups (each of equal size) will be assigned different sides of the debate topic: "Water shortage limits population growth." Reporters will devise questions to pose during the debate while the debate teams use the collection's artifacts and contemporary knowledge to develop arguments supporting their positions. After adequate preparation time, have reporters moderate the debate, allowing one minute for each team to respond to questions and one minute each for rebuttal. After all students have had the opportunity to ask a question, give a prepared response, or state a rebuttal, have each group prepare and deliver a one minute closing statement. Reporters will determine the winning team.
  • Create posters for distribution in 1950 that inform the public about the new ordinance and provide recommendations for conserving water. Use only knowledge available at the time.
  • Use audio editing software (e.g., Audacity or GarageBand) to create a radio show using a point/counterpoint style based on the question: "Does exposing water shortage in the Las Vegas Valley limit potential population growth?" After listening to student radio shows, read about the 1950 KENO radio public forum.

Research Topics


Vocabulary Words

aquifer, natural spring, consumption, replenish, mountain runoff, wells, water meters, ordinances, irrigation, swamp coolers, evaporative coolers

  • Describe the Las Vegas Valley Water District's current system of rotating lawn watering times and provide a detailed technical report explaining how the system conserves water and/or ensures resource sustainability.
  • Explain how city commissioners could use the supply and demand curve to respond to concerns about raising water rates.
  • Review all correspondence between Bracken and distant railroad officials. Were railroad officials micro-managing the water situation in Las Vegas? Support your answer by providing evidence based on this set's artifacts as analyzed using business literature.

Introduction to Topic

When first built and settled in 1905, Las Vegas seemed to have plenty of water from natural springs and wells that tapped into an aquifer underlying the valley. However, with population growth, consumption, and over-drilling of wells, it was clear to scientists by 1945 that the underground water supply was not being replenished by mountain runoff at a sufficient rate to offset what was being withdrawn. The aquifer was, in effect, being drained.

While there had been periodic water shortages in the past, sometimes severe, the sinking of new wells had always succeeded in meeting immediate needs. In the early 20th century, though, the flow of water from the wells and springs declined to a point where it was clear that either water use had to be limited or new sources of water found. The railroad consistently met crises of water shortage with requests that citizens reduce their water use voluntarily, or if necessary, the city restrict water use by passing ordinances primarily aimed at excessive sprinkling of lawns. At the same time, the railroad and its water company (the Las Vegas Land & Water Company) were accused by the city of not adequately maintaining pipelines (said to be continually leaking).

Water restrictions were very unpopular and mostly ignored to the extent that water company officials asked the city to assign police to enforce ordinances. The railroad's frustration with imposing or persuading control over water consumption led, in part, to its decision to get out of the water business. It would the job of the new Las Vegas Valley Water District to enforce restrictions on drilling and consumption and to install water meters.

1919 Letter written by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce to railroad officials including Comstock, Halstead, Bracken, and Clark. In it, they express concern over low water pressure available within city limits with particular concern over a noticeable decrease in pressure available when recently fighting fires. The Chamber places the burden of determining the source of the lowered pressure on the railroad and agrees to work with the railroad if the problem is due to citizen overuse. If the railroad finds the problem to originate with irrigation, the Chamber supports that city should enact ordinances restricting water use for that purpose. 
1922 Letter from Walter Bracken (the railroad's agent in Las Vegas) written to the general manager of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad, William Comstock. He urges the railroad to act quickly in response to the city's cry for increased water pressure so as to avoid public outcry. He explains potential causes of the decreased pressure and makes recommendations to alleviate the problem in the short-term.
1924 In this letter and telegram between railroad officials, the Las Vegas Land & Water Company reports that wells are spewing sand and damaging trains. They report a struggle to increase water production.
1935 Letter from Bracken writing to the Las Vegas mayor to encourage assignment of police patrol for water waste. Bracken called the situation "acute," particularly during the hottest part of the year. He expressed the railroad's willingness to cover expenses needed to enforce water restrictions.
  Letter from Bracken to Knickerbocker, discussing whether he should respond to “asinine” resolution passed by city commission when asked for an ordinance against wasting water
1936 In an effort to avoid legal action from the Stewart family, Bracken writes a letter to Knickerbocker. Per the original sales agreement, the railroad was to concede enough water to the Ranch to ensure the upkeep of the burial plot. This stipulation was not being adequately met. Bracken also notes that an article in Review-Journal (Las Vegas newspaper) had a positive effect on a short-term decrease in water usage.
  Knickerbocker reports to Jeffers about worsening water conditions due to increased need. To support his assertions, he provides data about past usage and forecasts future needs.
1938 In this June 1938 letter, Bracken briefs Jeffers on issues including production problems with Well No. 2, a possible rate increase due to evaporative water coolers, and the water shortage in Las Vegas.
  In this Union Pacific Railroad telegram to Walter Bracken, Jeffers considers possible options for addressing costs related to private use of air cooling. The general tone of the letter was that citizens using evaporative coolers should pay more for their water service since cooling was not considered "necessary." 
1939 Telegram asserts Strong's (Water Co.) support of Bracken's recommendation to drill a well to supply water to the Las Vegas Ranch.
1942 Letter from Bracken writing to the manager of the Army housing project, C.P. Massie, informing him of complaints about water waste and the city ordinance forbidding water waste.
1945 Letter to Bennett from Bracken discussing a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce regarding water metering in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Land & Water Company asserted that their desire for water meters was solely in the interest of water conservation and not increased revenues.
  The police remind Las Vegas citizens of the ordinance against wasting water in this newspaper clipping. They also note receipt of complaints about water wastage throughout the valley.from Review Journal story; Police remind citizens of ordinance against wasting water

Bracken uses this letter to ask the city manager, McCall, to require more "intelligent" use of water in the Huntridge Addition City Park. He notes this action would set a good example for residents.

  Letter from Frank Strong to Walter Bracken written in response to a letter about a private citizen requesting to drill a new well. He expresses concern about this and similar requests because the valley's residents were depleting the water supply more quickly than nature replenished it. He was hesitant, though, to deny drilling rights because it could incite public hostility against the railroad and its water company. Strong requested that, as formerly recommended by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, a local Water Conservation Committee be assigned to address water availability and access issues.
1949 The Nevada Public Service Commission provides this report to the Las Vegas Land & Water Company. It summarizes the water shortage and details commissioner Williams' recommendations to correct it.
  Writing on behalf of the Public Service Committee, J.G. Allard requests the Las Vegas Land & Water Company develop a plan to prevent future water shortages. In the letter, he threatens that if the plan is insufficient, the Committee will call for public hearings.

Radio station KENO was airing a public forum on the question: ''Will the growth of Las Vegas be limited by shortage of water?'' They sought representatives from both the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Land & Water Company to make prepared statements and respond to public questions. In this telegram, Folger asks Reinhardt whether the Water Company should participate.

  Folger reported to Reinhardt in this letter that he attended a meeting on possible revisions to the water restrictions ordinance and spoke in opposition to its repeal.
  This memo prepared by Folger, addressing concerns about the Las Vegas Sprinkling Ordinance and proposes suggestions for making the ordinance more effective.
  This Las Vegas Sun newspaper clipping is titled: "City Lifts Ban on Daytime Watering for 15-Day Period."

In this letter, Maag makes a request to Union Pacific Railroad Vice President Reinhardt for approval of police department assignment of two officers to enforce water restrictions. The Las Vegas Land & Water Company would cover related expenses during summer months.

  In this letter, Reinhardt provides his approval of Maag's recommendation to assign two police officers to enforce water restrictions at the expense of the Las Vegas Land & Water Company during summer months. He states this had been done in previous years.


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