The Vegas Paradox

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


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.

  • 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

"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.