The Vegas Paradox

In Sin City, excess and efficiency walk hand-in-hand.

  • Thirty-nine million people visit Las Vegas each year, drawn by its grand facsimiles of life elsewhere, and by the constant promise that anything can happen.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Tourists take photos near a fountain at Caesar's Palace along the Strip.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Long derided as the over-the-top desert city that shouldn't exist, Las Vegas is trying to become more water-efficient. Las Vegas Valley Water Authority water waste investigator Neil Bailey videotapes as water from a south Las Vegas lawn irrigation system flows onto the street, a violation.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Las Vegas Valley Water Authority water waste investigator Neil Bailey checks if a home violating lawn irrigation rules has been ticketed before.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Slot gambling on the Strip.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Tourists watch a light show set to music in the Fremont Street Experience, a roofed pedestrian corridor in Las Vegas. With its overhead screen of 12.5 million LED lamps, the spectacle is at the center of the city's downtown revival efforts.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A party plays craps on the Strip.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Mirage Hotel and Casino's volcano show.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A luxury room in the LEED Silver certified Palazzo Hotel, featuring energy-efficient LED lights custom made for the resort.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Mannequins in a luxury-goods store.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Caesar's Palace behind the Bellagio's famous fountain, which uses recycled water.

    Andrew Cullen
  • In a bid for energy efficiency, the new City Hall is fronted by a forest-like solar array and a xeriscaped garden.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Xeriscaped yards sit next to traditional grass lawns in Monarch Estates, a gated community in southern Las Vegas where inspectors encounter "habitual" violations of irrigation rules.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Las Vegas Valley Water Authority technician Don Bryant listens for signs of leaking water mains.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Mansions in the mountains at the edge of Henderson, Nevada, a Las Vegas suburb, near where treated-wastewater flows down the Las Vegas Wash toward Lake Mead.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Treated wastewater enters the Las Vegas Wash, heading for Lake Mead. The city gets a credit for wastewater that returns to the reservoir, essentially allowing it to pump and use more water from the Colorado River than its allotment.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Las Vegas Wash was once a seasonal arroyo, but now runs year-round as treated wastewater from the Las Vegas metro area flows back to Lake Mead. Revegetation projects have encouraged bird and animal life along the apparently healthy waterway.

    Andrew Cullen
 

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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.

David Zetland
David Zetland Subscriber
Jan 22, 2014 01:08 PM
Nice story (love the City Hall angle), but I'd reconsider the "regulation" label you apply to higher prices. Full cost pricing that reflects water scarcity is sustainable b/c it balances supply and demand. Regulations restrict behavior in SPECIFIED ways; prices give people the option of responding -- or not.

Although lawn removal and regulations on new homes are always featured, it's the low price of water that encourages those big green lawns. Vegas wants 199 gallons/capita/day by 2035. Most Australian cities get by on 25% of that. Will Vegas still have water by then?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Jan 22, 2014 01:41 PM
David: Thanks for the comment, and good point regarding regulation vs. pricing and the subtle distinction. I'll keep that in mind in the future. I think in this case, though, either higher pricing for large users, or new regulations restricting use, would run up against the same sort of political opposition. And I think you're right: 199 gallons per capita per day is probably too much, especially if Vegas starts growing again.
Rob Mrowka
Rob Mrowka
Jan 27, 2014 11:56 AM
Too bad the author got sucked in to writing such a PR fluff piece for the SNWA. FYI - would help your journalistic endeavors of the future to talk to differing views on a topic. Particularly irritating is the statement made by the author near the end that, "It (Las Vegas) can't really control its future growth". WRONG! Unlike Phoenix or Tucson who are surrounded by ample private lands, Las Vegas is land locked by federal public lands. Only through Acts of Congress (there have been three so far) that authorize the BLM to sell off public lands to private developers can Las Vegas expand out of its current footprint. Yes it could grow vertically, but that is actually the most energy and water efficient way to go and not much of a problem - witness 40 million tourists using just 7% of the water. The Inspirade example is a fine one, but miniscule in the big picture. The SNWA refuses to promote indoor conservation due to their business model that relies on return flow credits and being able to repeatedly sell the same gallons of water to consumers.
Conservationists have proposed a four-legged approach to water for Las Vegas - increased conservation and lowering consumption from the current 219 gal/day to 170; restrictions on expanding the growth boundary outward and a focus on in-fill and vertical development; changing how the waters of the Colorado River are used given the modern realities of an urban population and climate change; and desalinization of sea water to meet long term needs.

By the way, the reliance on return flow credits by the SNWA means a huge cost in terms of energy used and greenhouse gases produced to pump water 1000'+ repeatedly uphill from Lake Mead to the Las Vegas Valley.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Jan 27, 2014 01:44 PM
Rob: Thanks for your comment. But you seem to have missed a few crucial phrases and concepts. Right after I say "Las Vegas can't really control its future growth" (meaning it can't cap its population or stop people from moving there) I write this: "... it can decide, through land-use zoning, urban planning and water-hookup restrictions, how future growth will happen." I think the story makes it very clear that Inspiradas are not the answer, nor are they sustainable. So if Vegas is to finally choose "how future growth will happen," then it should choose to grow vertically, encourage infill, revitalize and repurpose what is already in the urban core (a point that's very clear in the final section of the story). Another conservation tool in SNWA's box? SNWA could raise water rates on the biggest water users to bring them into line with cities like Tucson, and even cap water use for residences, thereby essentially requiring folks to tear out their gargantuan lawns and thereby continue to reduce overall water use. As for your suggestion that Vegas focus on "desalinization of sea water to meet long term needs," well, I hope not. Desalinization -- not to mention pumping ocean water to Vegas -- is incredibly energy intensive. Las Vegas has proven that it can make progress on water conservation, and it should continue this progress via the aforementioned methods rather than turning to desalinization or, for that matter, piping groundwater from rural parts of the state.

Thanks again for your comments, and I'm sorry you missed some of the more nuanced ideas in the story.
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer Subscriber
Jan 30, 2014 12:19 PM
I’m disappointed that this discussion isn’t focused on the key idea in the article, ie, why are we happy about consuming more in total in order to get per capita consumption down? I sense the heavy hand of HCN editors on this piece, perhaps causing the author to sort of bury the question, even though it’s in there twice and hinted at right in the title. (And professional environmentalism’s go-along-to-keep getting-funded capitulation to this kind of greenwash has been well documented elsewhere. By the way Rob, do you really believe that 93% of the water consumed in Vegas every year is unrelated to the footprint of 40 million tourists?) This article was not really the brutal exposé of our pathetic definition of what it means to be “green” in this country that I would have preferred. Maybe that’s because the people desperately need to keep dividing their impact by the number of people.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Jan 30, 2014 06:06 PM
Doug: As the author of the article (as well as one of those heavy-handed HCN editors), I can say with certainty that neither editor nor writer tried to bury any "brutal exposé" of Vegas. I can also say with some certainty that the alleged burying would not have endeared us to our funders (most of whom are also our readers, who tend to like brutal exposés). Sure, I could have followed much easier paths into this story, such as: Vegas, by its very nature -- a city of 2 million consumers + 39 million über-consuming visitors per year in a very arid place -- can not be "sustainable" by any measure, so it shouldn't even exist. And regardless of how many LEED certifications it has, the Palazzo would have been much greener had it not been built at all. True. But Vegas DOES exist, and it DOES rely on visitors who want a bit of decadence, and the Palazzo WAS built. Which leaves the question: How do they deal with the fact that they are running up against hard limits to their consumption, namely Nevada's relatively small share of the Colorado River, which seems to be vanishing? My intent with this article was not to expose anyone, but to take readers on an intellectually honest journey through these efforts. What did I find? A lot of nuance, complexity and even conflicting conclusions: Vegas and sustainability do not go hand in hand, but water managers, the city and major resorts have done a commendable job in bringing the two together -- as the piece points out, Las Vegans not only use less water per capita than they did a decade ago, but they use less, overall. They still need to do much more, and it's nutty -- paradoxical -- for them to rely on building more homes in order to get the per capita water use down. I hope that's obvious to our readers. And it won't be me or greens or anyone else forcing their hand, it will be the climate, the drought and the diminishing Colorado River.

Thanks for the comment.

Jonathan Thompson
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer Subscriber
Jan 30, 2014 08:39 PM
Jonathan, I’m sure you know this is social critique I’m offering here and nothing more, but I don’t see any nuance or complexity in the first graph displayed over at “Vegas' new water czar has a tough row to hoe”. Around the year 2000, Vegas got serious about reducing waste, and so while the population continued to grow, total water use levelled off. Then came the big bust, population levelled off, and total water use went down maybe 10%. Where’s the complexity in that? Our society wants to congratulate itself on getting that low hanging fruit, but as you’re obviously well aware, nothing at all has changed the picture outlined in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. And, in opposition to the gist of Sarah Gilman’s post (“L.A. is here to stay”, with which your comment shares some thoughts about these places already existing) I think we Southwesterners ought to wallow right there in the mud of those “tricky ethical places” for as long as necessary until we can accept what’s going on in the world without flinching.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Jan 31, 2014 06:48 AM
Doug, Good points, and well said. I appreciate the conversation. Keep the comments coming!
Jerry Unruh
Jerry Unruh Subscriber
Jan 31, 2014 09:15 PM
My wife and I are moderately conservative and our daily water consumption has averaged 76 gallons (27,700 gallons/yr) for the past 13 years. We don't water outside but we have an extensive planter of about 100 sq ft inside. We live in a mountain community in Colorado. People who live in the desert should try and understand its limitations.
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 01:47 PM
I think this was the most intelligent article in the entire issue, with hard facts and the proper journalists' skepticism. However, after reading it twice, I still don't understand what the "paradox" is.
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 01:48 PM
I think this was the most intelligent article in the entire issue, with hard facts and the proper journalists' skepticism. However, after reading it twice, I still don't understand what the "paradox" is.