The Vegas Paradox

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


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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.

David Zetland
David Zetland says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
Jan 31, 2014 06:48 AM
Doug, Good points, and well said. I appreciate the conversation. Keep the comments coming!
Jerry Unruh
Jerry Unruh says:
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 says:
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 says:
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.