John Entsminger has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly. He will soon be responsible for keeping Las Vegas and its associated sprawl from drying up and evaporating back into the desert. Current Southern Nevada Water Authority director Pat Mulroy, notorious throughout the West for her water-grabbing ways, hand-picked Entsminger to be her successor upon her February retirement after two decades at the Water Authority’s helm.
When Mulroy became the first director of the Water Authority — a coalition of seven local water districts — in 1991, she quickly became known for her tenacity, particularly in going after water in other parts of the state. She spent millions on ranches for the water rights, and millions more in an attempt to pump groundwater from the rural eastern part of the state and pipe it to Vegas in order to shore up existing water supplies, 90 percent of which came and still come from the Colorado River. But as drought gripped the region, even Mulroy turned to conservation. I go in-depth into those efforts and more in The Vegas Paradox, featured in HCN’s urban sustainability issue. (Read it now!)
While Mulroy had her challenges, Entsminger’s are certainly more daunting. Drought has gripped the Colorado River for 14 years (Mulroy took the reins of the Water Authority on the heels of a particularly abundant water decade on the Colorado). The gargantuan effort to build a third water intake in Lake Mead — to replace the first intake, which will soon be marooned above low water — has been plagued with problems, danger, delays and mind-boggling expense. Both population growth and construction seem to be resuming in Vegas after a pause for the recession, even as Vegas, itself, is under a severely warm, dry spell: Only 2.96 inches of precipitation for all of 2013 amidst record-setting heat that killed 41 people. And a federal judge recently dealt a serious blow to the “Pat’s Pipeline” groundwater pumping project, delaying and possibly diminishing and maybe even killing Vegas’ main hope for a backup plan when the Colorado River gets too low to slake the region’s growing thirst.
In his 2007 book, Playing the Odds: Las Vegas and the Modern West, the late Hal Rothman writes: “Water will always be the straw man in Las Vegas, the question the rest of the world asks that pulls attention from the real issues the city — and any booming metropolis in the desert — faces. … Availability is not the question. … (the question is) who will pay what for the water and who elsewhere will give it up. The only genuinely determining factor in acquiring water is cost.”
Once, that may have been the case, and Mulroy certainly tried to abide by it. But these days, the old adage, “water flows uphill to money,” seems to be fading away. Though "Pat's Pipeline" is still on the table, getting it built will require jumping many hurdles. By the looks of things, Vegas can’t simply buy itself out of this mess.
That’s a very good thing. It will force Entsminger — who joined the Water Authority right after graduating from University of Colorado law school in 1999 — to reckon with the truth: Vegas is in the middle of the desert. The amount of water available is limited. The city cannot keep growing like it has. And the only reliable "new" source of water lies in efficiency. The Authority has done a commendable job of saving water over the last decade, even as it was trying to stick its straws into everyone else’s aquifers. “Las Vegas is far more advanced in both water consciousness and water management than almost anywhere else in the country,” writes Charles Fishman in his 2011 book The Big Thirst. Now it’s going to need to get even better.
I put together these graphs to show how well Southern Nevada has saved during Mulroy's reign. After relatively serious drought measures were put in place in 2003, overall water use* plateaued and then dropped, even as the population continued to soar. It's a remarkable phenomenon, though there is a caveat: Part of the reason Las Vegas was able to cut consumption so much is because it consumed so much in the first place. Call it the Biggest Loser postulate, in which the fattest person to start out with has a lot more weight to lose.
The graph above also reveals one of the weird sides of Vegas water accounting. Even though the state is only entitled to 300,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado River, it can divert more than that, as long as it returns enough treated waste water to Lake Mead so that the difference between the diversion and returns — or consumptive use — is less than 300,000 acre feet (1 af = 325,851 gallons). In 2012, for example, the city diverted approximately 440,000 acre feet, but it returned 200,000 af of water. So it "consumed" around 240,000 af, giving it 60,000 af of slack before it exceeds its Colorado River allotment. That is: consumption = diversion - returns. Note that in the graph below I use total diversions, or withdrawals, from the Colorado River, divided by the total population, to determine per capita use. This does not take into account the water from local wells — about 10 percent of the total — that Las Vegans use.
And these Google Earth shots (below, right) of two Las Vegas neighborhoods — one built mostly in the 1960s, when the Rat Pack was frolicking in the area, and the other constructed in the last decade — illustrate one of the primary ways by which Vegas has saved water: By drastically reducing the amount of grass allowed in new homes and businesses. New homes are far more efficient than old ones: A random sample showed a home in the old 'hood using a whopping 770,000 gallons per year, while one in the new development used just 89,000 gallons. The contrasting images also reveal where the Water Authority has to target its next efficiency measures: the older, lush neighborhoods. The first step would be to raise water rates for the biggest water users to further de-incentivize waste (it’s worked for Albuquerque and Tucson). Big, emerald green lawns will become too expensive to keep around. And if throwing all that money into their turf isn't enough to encourage xeriscaping, then put households on a water budget, just as the Water Authority has done for local golf courses, to force older homes to be as efficient as the new ones.
I suspect that is just the beginning of what will be required of the nation’s driest city in an ever warmer and drier future. And raising rates or capping water use will be tough, politically. But reality will ultimately trump politics. “Las Vegas isn’t demanding change yet because the situation isn’t dire yet,” says Jeff Roberts, Senior Architectural Designer at SERA Architects, and a board member of Las Vegas’ Springs Preserve. “But in the end, if something’s not done, this city’s not going to exist.”
*The graph and numbers, along with the per capita daily use graph, only consider Colorado River water. Las Vegas gets the remaining 10 to 11 percent of its water from groundwater pumping in the Las Vegas Valley. Since the groundwater amounts remain fairly static from year to year, they do not change the overall consumption trends.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.