City Cast

🪨 Caliche: A Hard Rock Story

Scott Dickensheets
Scott Dickensheets
Posted on October 13
Illustration of a pickaxe.

Don’t pick a fight with caliche. (SkyAceDesign/Getty Images)

Kirk Stowers has a caliche story. Not because he’s a geologist, which he is — with the consulting firm Broadbent & Associates — but thanks to his dad. It was 1973, and his family had just arrived from Illinois. “My father had been led to believe that in order for a family to appreciate living in Southern Nevada, a swimming pool was going to be necessary in our backyard,” Stowers recalls. A contractor was hired and began to dig. “We wanted an eight-foot pool, and at about six feet they ran into caliche.” Full stop. That’ll be $10,000 extra, they said.

Caliche is a hard, dense sedimentary rock a few feet beneath our soil, formed when groundwater dissolves the alluvium that fills our bowl-like valley. The minerals reharden in a process “a lot like making cement,” Stowers says. It occurs in random swatches throughout the valley, though more often in the center. The bane of people who dig or who wish their house had a basement, caliche isn’t without its upsides. It’s good for building rock walls, for one. It also inhibits pollutants from seeping deeper into the soil. And studies show that desert caliche traps a lot of carbon underground, out of the air — no small benefit as climate change accelerates.

Stowers’ father stubbornly dismissed the change order and “bought himself a pickaxe,” his son recalls. “Then he walked down into the bottom of the excavation, and he took a mighty swing —”

Let’s pause briefly to reflect on the comic inevitability of the man vs. nature saga about to play out, symbolic of the larger challenges of imposing our will on a hard desert place (see also “Vegas, Las”). From the outside the stone is a riddle, poet Charles Simic wrote, no one knows how to answer it. That certainly pertained to Mr. Stowers that day in 1973:

“— and it made a loud, clanging sound, like a bell. He only took one swipe, and the pick bounced back up; it didn’t even make a dent.” At which point Mr. Stowers solved the riddle of the stone by calling the contractor back. “They finished our swimming pool, $10,000 later.” Lesson learned: You can conquer the desert, all right, but it’ll probably cost you.

➕ Caliche isn’t the only thing worth griping about in this town! We have a whole list. [City Cast Las Vegas 🎧]

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