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
 

Page 2

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.

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.