The Vegas Paradox

by Jonathan Thompson

Viva Las Vegas, with your neon flashin'
And your one-arm bandits crashin'

All those hopes down the drain.

Viva Las Vegas, turnin' day into nighttime

Turnin' night into daytime
If you see it once
You'll never be the same again.
– Elvis Presley, 1964

J.C. Davis pilots a white sedan through a late-vintage planned community about 10 miles southeast of the Las Vegas Strip. Nearly empty streets curve gently past architectural features tinted the bland beige shades mandated by each development – a khaki wall here, tan homes there, a sand-colored CVS pharmacy – like lithium for the eyes. Just past a biscuit-colored Starbucks, Davis parks on a street that, for now, marks the dividing line between suburbia and open desert. Here, workers put the finishing touches on a row of closely snuggled, nearly identical stucco houses, colored – you guessed it – beige, and capped with trendy tan tile roofs.

From the passenger seat, I gaze in bafflement. Ostensibly, Davis, the gregarious, clean-cut public information officer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is here to show me a "Water Smart" home. I had pictured a one-off prototype that would never really be lived in – some sort of rammed-earth, recycled-cardboard affair complete with composting toilet and a hairy, unwashed tenant.

Instead, I get Inspirada, a new-urbanist community conceived in 2004, when houses were sprouting in southern Nevada at a rate of more than three per hour. On 1,900 acres bought from the Bureau of Land Management for $577 million, a consortium of developers planned 11,500 homes arranged in seven "villages," each with its own theme. The community was meant to evoke pre-World War II America, with a town square, parks and a boutique casino. Yet even as the Desert Mermaids frolicked in a community pool and an American Idol star belted out "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the 2007 grand opening, the whole "build it and they will buy" credo was evaporating under the desert sun. The Southwestern housing market twirled into free fall, and Inspirada's developers ultimately went bankrupt with less than 700 homes built. But with the market making a sputtering comeback, Inspirada is reviving.

Every house that national builder KB Homes erected in the development is part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority's voluntary Water Smart program, meaning it uses an average of just 94,000 gallons annually – about half the water guzzled by older Las Vegas homes, and 20 percent less than those of similar vintage. "Short of living in a high-rise, it's about as efficient as you're going to get," says Davis, whose organization, composed of seven districts, manages water for some 2 million people in the greater Las Vegas metro area.

This is sustainability, Sin City style. It sounds like a bad joke. After all, this is the place visited by 39 million people yearly, all of whom gobble ghastly amounts of carbon-spewing fossil fuels to drive or fly here. This is where, for just $250,000, you can push the button that makes a 22-million-gallon fountain ejaculate, or play one of 61 iridescently green golf courses scattered across the sprawl in a region that gets 4.2 inches of rain annually. Here, urban revitalization involves stringing a canopy of 12.5 million lights over a city street, creating a seizure-inducing display whose effects can be tempered only with the help of 96-ounce cocktails. Don't worry; the drinks are cleverly designed to hang around your neck, keeping your hands free for playing slots and smoking.

"Vegas and sustainability are two words that don't typically come together in most people's minds," admits Las Vegas Sustainability Director Tom Perrigo in what may be the diplomatic understatement of the year. But lately, this paragon of excess has been making noteworthy strides in both the public and private sector, from the city government pledging to make its collective facilities "net zero," to resorts embracing LEED-certified construction.

Of course, the real test for the nation's driest city is water. Ninety percent of the Vegas metro area's supply comes from the nearby Colorado River, which is shackled by a 14-year drought. The hard limits to decades of conspicuous consumption are clearly visible just 30 miles from the city, where Lake Mead – a reservoir on the river – is so low that a hundred vertical feet of its craggy banks are exposed. Even as the Water Authority scours far and wide for new sources, it has also quietly cultivated an old-fashioned alternative: efficiency.

Beyond Inspirada, my tour takes me to a wastewater treatment facility that, after removing all the crap, sends clean water back out to golf courses and parks. I sit down with a group of nerdy engineers – rock stars in their field – whose job it is to find and plug leaks in the 4,100 miles of water lines below the city, saving hundreds of millions of gallons each year. At a golf course, I try to talk green speeds and turf lengths with a course superintendent who ripped out acres of grass. And I see first-hand just how much fat some of the mega-casino resorts have managed to cut from their energy and water budgets.

Ultimately, I find evidence that the city is, indeed, becoming vastly more efficient and may even be inching towards so-called sustainability. And it's not in spite of the raw and uninhibited consumption that has made Vegas a legend, but, ironically, because of it.

If there is a Garden of Eden here, the place that gave Las Vegas life and from which it was ultimately exiled, it lies west of downtown, where wide, strip-mall-lined thoroughfares hem in neighborhoods of classic, low-slung ranch homes and palm-shaded mini mansions, mostly built in the '60s and '70s. Across a busy road from what is now a mega-shopping mall, cool, fresh water once bubbled up from a spring that an 1888 traveler described as "five yards in diameter and of unfathomable depth … below whose sparkling surface it was impossible to sink on account of the strong current that boiled up from the bottom."

In this unforgiving landscape, which gets half the rain Phoenix does, that spring made old Las Vegas an oasis, drawing the railroad and giving life to orchards and then a small city. Two dozen productive wells were sunk nearby, along with hundreds of smaller ones around the Las Vegas Valley. The population bloomed, and by 1962, had sucked the spring dry. Yet Las Vegans refused to give up their oasis. And for a while, they didn't have to.

The 1922 Compact that divided the waters of the Colorado River gave Nevada 300,000 acre-feet per year, far less than other states but seemingly enough for a sparsely populated state mostly occupied by federal land and bombing ranges. When the second intake in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, was completed in 1983, Las Vegas Valley urbanites were able to take advantage of the state's entire Colorado River allotment.

Meanwhile, the advent of air conditioning caused the Southwest to boom. The population of Clark County, Vegas' home, was 273,000 in 1970. By 1990, it was nearly 800,000. Just as electricity imported from coal plants across the Southwest provided refuge from the broiling heat, Colorado River water kept the place verdant with golf courses, fountains and fake waterfalls. By the late '80s, each Las Vegan used more water than just about anyone else – almost 400 gallons per day compared to Phoenix's gluttonous 315 gallons. "The obsession in Vegas isn't money or sin," writes Charles Fishman in his 2011 The Big Thirst. It's water: "displaying it, unfurling it, playing with it, flaunting it." Or, as journalist Jacques Leslie observed after seeing the Bellagio fountain: Water in Vegas "is displayed more lasciviously than sex."

By the time charismatic, no-holds-barred water czar Pat Mulroy took over the then-newly formed Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1991, it was clear something had to give. Unlike Phoenix, Las Vegas no longer had nearby farms from which it could buy water. Either the 1922 Compact needed to be renegotiated – unlikely, given California and Arizona's growth – or Vegas would have to limit its own growth, unthinkable given homebuilding's pre-bust importance to the regional economy.

So Mulroy set out to prove that water does indeed flow uphill towards money, grabbing rights to 800,000 acre-feet from across the state, including groundwater under expansive valleys more than 200 miles to the north. But environmentalists, Indian tribes, ranchers and the two Utah counties that lie atop the aquifer have all bitterly fought "Pat's Pipeline." In December, a judge ordered the state engineer to reconsider his approval for the groundwater pumping. And with the southern Nevada economy still gasping from the recession, Las Vegas has a lot less gravity-defying cash available to build a project that could cost as much as $15 billion. The city's current share of water isn't guaranteed, either: Mead's level could drop below one of its two existing intakes by 2015 thanks to drought and growing demand. The Water Authority is spending $817 million building a new intake on the bottom of the reservoir, but if the climate continues to warm and dry, even that may prove inadequate.

Unlike many water buffaloes, however, Mulroy has, in many respects, also embraced camel-style conservation. With a bit of prodding, her constituents have followed. Per capita water use has dropped to 219 gallons – 40 percent less than in 1989. Between 2002 and 2012, the Las Vegas Valley grew by more than 400,000 people and added 25,000 hotel rooms. Annual visitation rose by 5 million, and yet total annual water use dropped 29 billion gallons.

Today, the Springs Preserve, a park, museum and educational center, sits about where the old fount bubbled up, and serves as a monument to the spring, a condemnation of the profligate water use of the past and a harbinger of a more efficient future. Next to solar panel-shaded parking lots and botanical gardens filled with native plants – panamint liveforever, scarlet hedgehog, desert spinystar – sits the Desert Living Center, a large, beautifully designed rammed-earth building with a catchment system to utilize what little rain falls from the all too sunny skies, and wetlands that filter water for re-use. Inside, kids can watch a dramatic flash flood simulation, crawl through a compost pile and play a video game whose goal is to tear up as much grass as possible, an activity, it turns out, that is key to Vegas' water-saving success.

Back in Inspirada, Bradd Robison, a shiny-pated, aviator glasses-wearing KB Homes representative, escorts us into a model Renoir Garden home. On the next block are the Monets; then, the Van Goghs. The disconnect between the French Impressionists and stucco, vaguely Tuscan homes set in Nevada seems to elude most visitors, perhaps because less than 10 miles away sit miniature versions of Paris, Manhattan and Venice. Still, Monet would miss his lily ponds: They're illegal here.

We're accompanying two water cops, aka Southern Nevada Water Authority conservation program officers. Toby Bickmore and Hillery Francis inspect the homes to ensure they meet the criteria for the Water Smart label and Water Authority codes. They check for plumbing leaks, measure faucet flow, and even time how long it takes to produce hot water – each extra second or minute contributes to waste. And swamp coolers, though they use less energy than air conditioners, are forbidden because they use too much water.

But, interestingly enough, indoor water waste isn't that frowned upon. Every drop that goes back into the sewer system is treated, and much of it – 200,000 acre-feet per year – is released into the Las Vegas Wash, which empties into Lake Mead. There, by 1964 Supreme Court decree, it is credited against Nevada's Colorado River allotment, allowing the state to pull 439,000 acre-feet out of the river in 2012, far more than its share. The arrangement drives efficiency hardliners like Jeffrey Roberts, a lead architect of the Desert Living Center, nuts: The same water-recycling system he built into the Center is not allowed elsewhere in the city, because it would take precious water away from the wash. Once a mostly dry arroyo, it has been transformed into a green-robed stream that sparkles even in 118 degree July heat and sustains dozens of species. It's the closest Vegas will ever get to recreating the Garden of Eden.

"For us, outdoor use is most critical," says Bickmore, who resembles actor Peter Sarsgaard in a blue water-guy uniform. While we generally regard The Strip's giant resorts as Vegas' biggest water hogs, they actually account for just 7 percent of the urban area's use. Single-family residences, meanwhile, consume about 40 percent, and 70 percent of that is used outside, primarily to water grass. Replace just one square foot of turf with desert-friendly xeriscape, and you save 55 gallons per year, says Bickmore. That's why, in 2003, as drought tightened its grip, the Water Authority banned turf in the front yards of new homes and commercial buildings, and limited it to just half of backyards. Pools – which are no longer being installed because of the economy – count against that allowance.

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. Altogether, the 120,000 homes built in the Las Vegas Valley since 2003 use about 8 billion gallons less per year than their predecessors. 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.

The Water Authority currently offers homeowners $1.50 per square foot of grass torn out. As a result, 167.5 million square feet of grass have vanished, saving billions more gallons of water. Residents can't just put in gravel or concrete, though, because those contribute to the urban heat island effect. Instead, like Inspirada's Water Smart homes, yards need enough arid-friendly plants to shade at least half their area.

Still, plenty of Las Vegans cling to their grass. As we drive through the city, Davis and I traverse a verdant neighborhood near the old spring. I notice an early-'60s house that's so retro-cool I half expect to see Dean Martin stumble out grinning, martini in hand. The lawn is an eye-popping shade of green that looks less real than the artificial turf at newer homes, and most of the neighborhood's other homes are equally lush and boast tree-shaded pools. This means that each of them uses as much as 10 times the water that one of the Water Smart homes does. Davis winces at the sight of a sidewalk-spraying sprinkler system, but it occurs to me that this neighborhood has vast potential. If times get really dry, the Water Authority will have the water used here essentially in reserve and as a last resort could force even these residents to tear out their lawns.

Meanwhile, the Water Authority labors to remind these folks that they live in a desert, aggressively encouraging compliance with watering restrictions. In one series of ads, a man runs sprinklers indiscriminately, until a nun, old woman or cute little dog arrives at his door, glares at him, and eventually takes action: The old woman kicks him in the crotch, the nun whacks him with her nunchuck ruler, or the dog attacks. Davis says the ads have offended some, but are effective.

This education-over-regulation approach has drawn criticism, especially when it comes to water rates. Though Vegas' water-pricing structure is far stronger than it was in the '90s – a heavy water user pays about five times more than a water miser – rates are still far lower than in many other arid Western cities, such as Santa Fe and Tucson.

But Vegas' libertarian streak and strong labor movement mean heavy regulation isn't always politically feasible, says city sustainability director Perrigo. That's why the city government leads by example – switching out 40,000 streetlights with LEDs or installing solar arrays to save some $5 million on its yearly electric bill – or pushes voluntary efforts, like Green Chips, a public-private partnership that, among other things, created a sustainable leadership academy that fosters a greener organizational culture. In many cases, that's enough. "For the private side, it's a bottom-line thing," says Perrigo. "That's our big story." KB Homes, for example, deliberately chose to build 9,500 Water Smart homes.

Customers appreciate this, says Robison: "Look around us. We live in a desert." While KB officials won't discuss sales, they say that Water Smart homes cost the same as others (a 2,300-square-foot Renoir goes for around $230,000), and can save homeowners $350 in annual utility costs. KB embraces efficiency as a competitive advantage in a merciless market. Over on the Strip, the same thing is happening, with mega-resorts that once competed to be the most ostentatious now battling to be the most sustainable. Energy-efficient rooms may not matter to most customers, but the resorts are eager for conference and meeting bookings from corporate clients who relish blowing their own green-company horns. And then there are the greenbacks saved. "The accountants running spreadsheets on this stuff look at it and go, 'Holy crap, look at how much money we can save by doing a water recycling system,' " says Roberts, the architect.

When the Palazzo hotel, part of the Sands Resort, was completed in 2007, it was the biggest building in the U.S. – some 400,000 square feet larger than the Pentagon. The U.S. Green Building Council awarded the building a LEED Silver rating for its efficiency. Building green made sense, says Katarina Tesarova, Las Vegas Sands Corp. sustainability director, because Sands both developed and occupies the resort, and can thus realize efficiency payoffs over time. Generous incentives helped: A 2005 state law – later rewritten – gave developers as much as $3 in tax breaks for every $1 spent on green buildings, netting the Palazzo and the LEED-heavy City Center hundreds of millions in tax credits.

Tesarova, a lithe woman with giant brown eyes and a Russian accent, begins a tour of the building's green features deep in the four-level parking pit, where she points to a trio of tanks behind a chain-link fence. "It's not so sexy," she says, but it's important. The system takes nuisance groundwater ("I hate the term," she adds; "for me, no water is nuisance") that would have to be pumped out of the garage anyway, and treats it until it's suitable for irrigating, taking the hotel's landscaping "off the potable water grid." Down the street, the notorious Bellagio fountains operate on a similar system, making them a weird hybrid of excess and sustainability. Untreated nuisance water is used for the Palazzo's huge cooling towers, which keep the building inhabitable in summer – saving more than 46 million gallons annually. Pools are heated, meanwhile, with one of the biggest rooftop solar thermal arrays in the country.

Also in the not-sexy-but-important category is the waste-sorting center, located in the "back of the house," a sort of underground city with an army of workers – 8,000 for the whole resort – walking and driving forklifts down wide hallways, disappearing into and emerging from doorways that lead to restaurants or shops. In one cavernous room, people in blue jumpsuits sort through 50 tons of waste per day. Food waste uncontaminated with other garbage is sent to hog farms as feed; the rest is composted. The resort's recycling rate is about 60 percent, says Tesarova, meaning more than 10,000 tons of waste are diverted from the landfill per year. Fifty stories above the underground city, opulent rooms are outfitted with super-efficient LED architectural lights, low-flow plumbing fixtures and occupancy sensors that let the climate control know when to crank up.

And therein lies that old Vegas paradox again: No matter how great the LEED rating, the sheer scale of the operation renders any notion of sustainability somewhat absurd. Yet that same scale gives small actions, like switching out a lightbulb, a big impact. Exchange 50,000 lightbulbs for more efficient ones, and it makes a difference. Spread that across the MGM Grand and Caesars, the other mega-resorts with ambitious sustainability initiatives, and you have efficiency, super-sized.

Perhaps nothing embodies this paradox more dramatically than City Hall. The seven-story glass facade looms over downtown like a giant mirror, reflecting both a cloud-dappled sky and the 77-kilowatt forest of solar "trees" out front. The airy, hushed lobby resembles that of a Manhattan bank, complete with a metal sculpture that looks like blocks of blue ice embedded in the wall. Finished last year for about $146 million, the structure is LEED Gold certified and has yet more solar panels on the roof. Perrigo, who has an office on the top floor, says it's twice the size of the old City Hall but uses half the energy.

That's the catch. In order to move into a more efficient building, the city abandoned its previous headquarters, which, at just 40 years old, was hardly antiquated. According to a National Trust for Historic Preservation study, building from scratch can incur a big "carbon debt" that can take 40 years to repay with efficiency gains (and presumably a lot longer for a megalith like the Palazzo). "We've found that you can retrofit a building and achieve similar levels of efficiency as with a new build," says efficiency think tank Rocky Mountain Institute associate Michael Bendewald. And yet the bigger-and-newer-is-better ethos often prevails, whether it's with public buildings or Inspirada's efficient new homes. Only by consuming more, the twisted logic goes, can we consume less.

But in this and so many other ways, Vegas is just America, only more so. We have the world's most insatiable appetite, devouring twice as much water and energy per capita than even economic powerhouses like Germany. We have long hooked "sustainability" to consumption, perpetuating the very system at the root of our environmental ills even as we seek to lessen its impact. We'd rather build giant new solar installations in the desert than re-insulate our 20-year-old houses.

In this respect, Vegas, and for that matter every other Southwestern city, is at a crossroads. It can't really control its future growth. But as it crawls out of the housing bust, it can decide, through land-use zoning, urban planning and water-hookup restrictions, how future growth will happen. Will developers continue to gobble up more land on the urban fringes, build more highways and put more cars on them to get to those efficient new homes? Or will they repurpose what is already there, occupy the boarded-up buildings downtown, fill in empty lots with efficient high-rises and urban gardens, xeriscape emerald-green neighborhoods and do away with the need for cars?

Downtown Vegas might hold an answer. After visiting Perrigo at City Hall, I stroll around the area, which, after decades of decline, is being revitalized. I check out the bike lanes, painted Christmas-tree green for visibility, and look on as a sleek natural gas-powered bus glides past workers assembling the world's first shipping-container mall. And then I tour the new headquarters of the online retailer Zappos. The company moved from the Bay Area to suburban Henderson in 2004. When it outgrew those digs, it considered building a mega-corporate campus out on the city's edge. Instead, Zappos took over one of the empty buildings downtown, gutted it and refurbished it as an efficient, hipster-corporate HQ for 1,450 employees. The building? Las Vegas' former City Hall.

Jonathan Thompson is an HCN senior editor based in Durango, Colorado.

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