Las Vegas’ Attempts at Conserving Water Are a Mirage

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March 18 2014 3:24 PM

The Thirsty West: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Even Sin City’s attempts to conserve water are wasteful.

Lake Mead
For the first time since the construction of the Hoover Dam, water levels in Lake Mead are being intentionally lowered due to the ongoing drought. The result is striking.

Photo by Eric Holthaus

LAS VEGAS—It’s no secret that the West is running out of water.

Perhaps the best evidence of this problem lies in stark juxtaposition across a stretch of desert surrounding Las Vegas.

As my wife and I planned our route from Tucson, Ariz., to California for the #thirstywest Slate series, there were a couple of stopovers I wanted to make along the way. This short drive was one of them.

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Within the span of a single afternoon, it’s possible to witness the past, present, and future of water issues in the West. We accomplished this by driving past the Hoover Dam, through Las Vegas, and on into California via Death Valley.

First, the past:

The Hoover Dam was the biggest civil engineering project in U.S. history, famously constructed in the midst of the Great Depression to tame the Colorado River, provide electricity, and create Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country. Now, climate change is starting to make it obsolete.

Lake Mead provides 90 percent of the water to the once-again booming city of Las Vegas, as well as indirectly to Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and agricultural areas downstream via diversions from the Colorado River. As the result of an ongoing multiyear drought, this giant lake is now approaching the lowest water levels since its construction.

When we saw it for the first time, we gasped.

The sight of so much water in the middle of a desert is in itself brain-twisting, but to see the bright-white “bathtub ring” marking the lake’s historic high-water mark more than 100 feet above current levels, contrasted with boats merrily speeding around on the dwindling reservoir, was nearly too much to take. It was a sharp reminder that despite building dams, aqueducts, and other super-human feats, water in the desert is inherently temporary. We stayed only a few minutes.

The last time water levels were this low, in 2010, federal officials contemplated worst-case scenarios of forced cuts to Las Vegas—of both electricity and water. It didn’t happen then, but the drought this time around is worse.

The lake is now expected to reach a new record low of 1,080 feet by April 2015 and to cross the first trigger for downstream water cutbacks at 1,075 feet shortly thereafter. By summer 2015, the water supply to Las Vegas itself could be affected if an $817 million tunnel project—currently months behind schedule—isn’t yet completed. That project, conceived as a way to extend Lake Mead’s usefulness in the face of climate change, is designed to suck water from the lake all the way to the very bottom—a point long after even the turbines of Hoover Dam would have to shut down, possibly for good.

The new tunnel can’t be finished fast enough. As the magnitude of the current drought started to hit home, construction of an impromptu tunnel designed to buy the larger project a few months of time was approved late last year. Officials described the newest tunneling project as an “emergency meant to avoid an emergency.”

It all has the feel of a patient on life support, with a spaghetti of IV lines coming out of both arms. The morbidly curious can follow the daily level of Lake Mead (down another 1.7 inches Monday), via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website. Which brings us to Las Vegas today.

A city built on sin can add another to its list: water.

The driest city in America still uses more water per capita than just about any other city in the country. This despite years of steady efficiency improvements and the resounding success of its “cash for grass” program that pays residents for each square foot of lawn they rip out and replace with rocks. Front lawns are now illegal in Las Vegas, yet verdant golf courses are still commonplace. About 70 percent of the city’s nearly maxed-out water diversion from Lake Mead still goes to landscaping.

Don’t get me wrong: The city has made major improvements in water efficiency, using about 40 percent less water per person over the past 25 years or so. The problem is the city’s population has tripled over that same time, and total water usage is up (though down from its peak about a decade ago—an improvement due at least partially to the economic downturn). It’s like a one-ton man patting himself on the back for losing 400 pounds. Great news, but there’s still a long way to go.

Environmental groups have taken the city to task for its water-wasting ways. In the most egregious cases, they’re winning. But the city isn’t going down without a fight. The city’s longtime water czar, known for her “whatever it takes” strategy in gobbling up new water rights statewide rather than focusing on efficiency at home, has recently retired. Now the city has rubber-stamped her handpicked successor. Here’s one alarming plan still under consideration, via the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

The biggest and most controversial project on the table is the authority’s decades-old plan to siphon groundwater from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada and send it to Las Vegas through a pipeline network expected to cost as much as $15 billion.
The idea has drawn loud opposition—and ongoing legal challenges—from critics who complain that it will cost too much, ravage the environment and fail to deliver as much water as authority officials promise.
Entsminger has done a great deal of work on behalf of what the agency calls its “in-state project,” and he said Tuesday that he has no plans to kill it, though he views it as “absolutely a Plan B.” If the water keeps dropping in Lake Mead, source for about 90 percent of the valley’s supply, the authority will have little choice but to pursue a backup source separate from the Colorado River, he said.

Getting a city built on excess to live within the limits dictated by climate and common sense is predictably no easy task. With water rates far lower than Santa Fe, N.M., or Tucson and a strong libertarian streak, you end up with crazy things like a LEED-certified casino that is also the largest building in the United States. Sustainability here is a desert mirage.

As High Country News’ Jonathan Thompson explains, in Las Vegas, the mantra seems to be: “Only by consuming more … can we consume less.” He continues:

The result is what I call the Vegas paradox. A 2010 survey found that new homes used an average of 115,000 gallons annually, while pre-2003 homes used 185,000 gallons. … That means that, under current regulations, developers will have to keep building and building in order for the Water Authority to succeed in reducing per capita water-use to 199 gallons by 2035. The more the place grows, in other words, the more sustainable it appears.

For perspective, that goal of 199 gallons per person per day by 2035 is twice California’s current statewide average water consumption. One of the best in the West, San Francisco, uses less than a quarter of the water per person as Vegas—just 49 gallons per person per day.

In this case, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. The city’s wastewater is pumped back into the Colorado River via the historically dry Las Vegas Wash streambed, now a lush oasis thanks to all that residential effluent. The less water Las Vegas puts back into the river, the less there is for the more populous states downstream—Arizona and California.

This year’s drought could be the catalyst for a new legal framework among the states that share that river’s water supply. Rogue irrigation districts have been testing legal limits, attempting to coax a bit more agricultural production out of the dwindling Colorado. If the drought lingers past current predictions, causing Lake Mead to fall further into uncharted territory, the cutbacks won’t be felt equally.

The New York Times has an explainer:

The labyrinthine rules by which the seven Colorado states share the river’s water are rife with potential points of conflict. And while some states have made huge strides in conserving water—and even reducing the amount they consume—they have yet to chart a united path through shortages that could last years or even decades.

Life in the desert is a gamble. But there’s only so much more time remaining before Mother Nature forces Vegas’ hand. Even money can’t buy water when there’s not enough to go around.

While exiting the city on Blue Diamond Road, we ran a gantlet of brand-new subdivisions, many with signs touting gargantuan square footage and four-car garages. This part of the drive was a little like opening up the front door one morning and having a real-live fire-breathing dragon calmly staring back at you. It simply should not be.

In my next part of the Thirsty West series, we arrive in Death Valley—one of the few parts of California that’s technically not in an extreme drought right now.

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Tucson, Ariz.

Tucson, Ariz.

Nogales, Ariz.

Las Vegas, Nev.

Death Valley

Sequoia National Forest

Hanford, Calif.

Denair, Calif.

Tulare, Calif.

Oakland, Calif.

Oakland, Calif.

Sheridan, Ore.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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