Vegas' new water czar has a tough row to hoe

 

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.

copy_of_photo.jpg
A child plays the Lawn Gobbler video game at the Desert Living Center in the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. The Center intends to teach Las Vegans to live of the desert, not just in the desert. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
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.

ScreenShot20140122at4.46.07PM.png
Even as Clark County, Nevada's population has soared, overall water use has declined. The bars show how much water was diverted/withdrawn from the Colorado River, how much was returned as treated wastewater via the Las Vegas Wash, and the difference between the two, or consumptive use -- the number that counts when it comes to Colorado River accounting. Graph by Jonathan Thompson. Data Source: Bureau of Reclamation and Clark County.

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.

Las Vegas has managed to steadily lower its per capita water consumption over the past two decades. These figures are based on total withdrawals from the Colorado River, as opposed to consumptive use (see explanation of previous graph). It does not include the additional 10 percent of Vegas water that comes from wells in the Las Vegas Valley. Graph by Jonathan Thompson. Data source: SNWA, Bureau of Reclamation, Clark County.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.