Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2021

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Sporadic heavy rains leave behind a trash heap in Las Vegas flood channels

Tropicana Wash

Wade Vandervort

Tents are set up Monday, July 19, 2021, inside the Tropicana Wash. Flash flooding or intense rain that descends over central or northwest Las Vegas cruises through storm drains into the Flamingo Wash and eventually pours into Lake Mead.

Tropicana Wash

A mattress lies in the Tropicana Wash Monday, July 19, 2021. Launch slideshow »

The Tropicana Wash was flowing with floodwater from the previous night’s storm to create a mess — a mud-green mattress, plastic water bottles and mismatched sneakers were visible in the wash Monday morning to those driving by.

Although out of place in the watery setting, trash like this is all too common in the Las Vegas wash system, and as flood season roars into the summer, waste becomes both a public health and environmental issue for local officials.

Blistering temperatures and dry days are sometimes interspersed with bursts of precipitation. During such barrages, the Flamingo Wash, into which Tropicana Wash flows, transforms into a current of waste. 

Clark County and Las Vegas officials are navigating the implications of this river of trash during Las Vegas’ flood season, including sieving debris from runoff and collecting left-behind trash as water rushes down the wash system.

Debris that flows through the wash system can comprise anything from above ground, said Erin Neff, public information manager at the Regional Flood Control District. She also said that at some points in the system, golf courses serve as flood channels — in the Flamingo Wash’s case, Las Vegas National Golf Course. A bounty of waste will typically accompany the primary flush of water that flows through a golf course, she said. 

“The trash that ends up [at the golf course] could start in Centennial Hills,” she said. “It could start in Summerlin. It just ends up there because of the way we’ve engineered the water to go. And we’ve engineered the water to do this to protect residents from flooding.”

The urban runoff, or surface water flow as a result of urbanization, that enters Flamingo Wash depends on the location of the rainfall, Neff said. Rainfall in the Southern Highlands, for example, would bypass Flamingo Wash because it is so far south. 

But flash flooding or intense rain that descends over central or northwest Las Vegas cruises through storm drains into Flamingo Wash and eventually pours into Lake Mead, a reservoir located approximately 30 miles beyond Las Vegas that provides 90% of the valley’s drinking water. During a flash flood, excessive water and debris flow through 677 miles of concrete channels, washes like Flamingo Wash and large dams known as detention basins, Neff said. To collect this waste, infrastructure like trash racks for large debris and smaller basins for finer waste like oils filter the runoff that will inevitably accumulate in Lake Mead. 

Neff said these features lessen the environmental impact and ensure minimal pollution enters the massive lake. 

Regional Flood funds these construction projects, spending $11.2 million on maintenance — paid to the city of Las Vegas and Clark County — in fiscal year 2019–2020. This figure is a $1.4 million increase from fiscal year 2018–2019’s $9.8 million, and Neff said that the budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, will likely be $13 million.

Waste appeared to be more common in the wash system during the pandemic, Neff said. Cleanup requests to Regional Flood were up 20% since March 2020, and calls to the Regional Flood office to report debris were up 30%.

In addition to untreated urban runoff, wastewater — water used to transport waste from homes or businesses that is treated by the city — also babbles into Lake Mead. 

This is a separate system from the urban runoff that enters the wash system, though both the treated wastewater and runoff converge in Clark County Wetlands Park, the water’s final stop before a journey under Lake Las Vegas, then on to Lake Mead, said Liz Bickmore, senior program administrator for Wetlands Park. She said 85% of the water in the park is treated wastewater, and the remaining 15% is urban runoff.

Large waste will often accumulate in Wetlands Park, which is home to animals like blue-hue whiptail lizards and early-rising beavers as well as cattails and tamaraws, a noxious weed. Bickmore said that after heavy rainfall, the water under the park’s Upper Diversion Weir Bridge can overflow to the surrounding land, carrying trash with it. Collected trash is then transported to the Apex Landfill. 

Bickman said programs like Keep Clark County Clean are necessary to teach residents about eliminating wasteful practices.

“We have stewardship programs, or we can hire a company to come in and pick up trash, or we’ll get our Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee to come out and help us, and sometimes it just sits there because we can’t do it,” Bickmore said. 

An issue concurrent to trash in the wash system is the presence of camps inhabited by homeless people in tunnels near Flamingo Wash.

Louis Lacey, manager of the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team at HELP of Southern Nevada, said that should dense rainfall occur, homeless people in the camps have mere minutes to vacate the tunnels. 

On overcast days, Mobile Crisis Intervention Team members enter the tunnels to verbally inform those living there of the weather and direct them toward better shelter, like the Salvation Army. The team will also post signs warning of the incoming weather and potential of flooding.

But the water itself isn’t the sole issue. Substantial debris that shoots along the wash is just as deadly, Lacey said, and if someone is caught in the tunnel in so pernicious a situation, drownings can transpire.

“The tunnels present a unique challenge because they are almost like a pre-built shelter,” Lacey said. “You have four walls. You have regulation. It’s not as hot as it is outside, or it’s not as cold as it is outside. So it’s inviting for someone that’s seeking some type of shelter away from the elements. 

"But Las Vegas is a gambling town, so when you are underground, you are literally gambling with your life," he said. "And if the water comes quickly and you don’t get out, there’s a high probability that you will perish.”

The tunnels aren’t the only place homeless people set up camps. In March, Las Vegas resident Herber Beshar found a homeless camp on the Las Vegas National Golf Course. 

In the tunnels, there are approximately 1,400 to 1,500 inhabitants. Christopher Engel, a Mobile Crisis Intervention Team outreach worker, said that working with the homeless in the tunnels can often be taxing because not everyone is interested in the services the team offers, including medical, mental health and alternate housing. 

Engel said he recalls a 2019 incident when he and another team member stopped by a tunnel filled with about 18 inches of swiftly churning water. Engel said that after asking if they wanted shelter, the homeless people living in the tunnel said they did not want to relocate. They instead asked for dry blankets — because their belongings, their homes, had been soaked by the flood.

But then there are moments, he said, when a satisfying breakthrough happens. Engel said that after years of declining his help, a homeless woman who struggled with a heroin addiction entered the rehabilitation program her friend was attending. She remains in rehab one year later, he said.

Fostering these connections with the homeless and chipping away at the internal barriers they have erected is essential to and a joyful aspect of his job, Engel said.

“I’d like to see the views of society on the homeless people change a little bit,” he said. “People are so harsh with the homeless. They don’t realize that there’s some past trauma that’s put them where they’re at.”