'Unreal City': How the West was grown

BOOK REVIEW

LOS ANGELES TIMESJune 8, 2014 

  • 'UNREAL CITY: LAS VEGAS, BLACK MESA, AND THE FATE OF THE WEST' by Judith Nies; Nation Books ($25.99)

The shady provenance of water and power is a familiar story in the West, recounted in works as varied as "Chinatown" and "City of Quartz." Judith Nies' sweeping new history of water, energy and thievery in the shaping of Las Vegas and the desert Southwest has an undeniable noir feel - and an unlikely assortment of characters.

Take, for example, the actor Robert Redford, famous for Sundance and as a supporter of assorted liberal causes. In "Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West," the real-life man plays the role of straw man alongside Sen. Barry Goldwater, executives from the Bechtel Corp. and assorted other financiers and politicos.

The corporate interests were pitting one group of Native Americans (the Hopi) against another (the Navajo) in the name of coal mining and keeping the lights on in Arizona and Nevada cities while ostensibly celebrating Hopi culture (with Redford) at a Phoenix reception, according to the book.

Nies, a former congressional staffer and author of three works of memoir and history, quickly realizes the invitees are linked to a series of massive, lucrative and controversial energy and water projects. These projects were made possible by agreements that have chased the Navajo off their land.

"The Indians were not the major players" in the deals taking place on their own land, Nies writes. "The real story was about energy and resources, about how coal was going to be used, and about who would make money."

Nies' book is about the people whose behind-the-scenes transactions helped create the infrastructure "that would fuel the next thirty years of metastasizing growth in the West." Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, all grew thanks to contracts signed on Indian reservations, and water siphoned from primordial aquifers.

"Unreal City," however, revolves around an obscure, "empty quarter" of desert most Westerners have never heard of: the Black Mesa coal fields, which are on Native American lands precious to the Hopi and the Navajos. Indian coal, transported by slurry water, fed the power plants that lighted up the West.

Like many a noir novel, the nonfiction "Unreal City" has a somewhat convoluted beginning, as Nies untangles an incredibly complex history of economic growth and ecological destruction. But the story quickly gathers momentum as Nies introduces us to Eastern mobsters, construction barons, Mormon pioneers and their descendants, and a Utah-based attorney whom she describes as a master at manipulating Indian law.

We see Las Vegas grow from a sleepy rail depot and learn about the fate of a treasure of groundwater built up in southern Nevada and northern Arizona since the Ice Age.

Nies' book is essential reading for those seeking to understand the largely hidden history and the forgotten deals and injustices that keep Las Vegas and Los Angeles glimmering.

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