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Las Vegas' Conservation Efforts At Odds With American Dream

Updated Jul 03, 2020

by Frederick Clayton

9 minutes read

Las Vegas is a city few would associate with conservation. Sprawling urbanization orbits towering casinos that welcome 42 million tourists a year, many here to experience the unrestrained consumption it’s famous for. Writes Frederick.

Las Vegas' Conservation Efforts At Odds With American Dream

But the city has fought the worst impulses of the American dream to become a model for water conservation in the southwest.

And yet their extraordinary efforts are still at odds with the kind of boundless economic growth the US prides itself on -- there is only so much water.

Disaster as a catalyst for change

A city in the middle of the desert, with less rainfall than any other in the nation, was bound to have a water problem. During the late 1980s, Las Vegas began to face this issue, having nurtured a spendthrift and reckless attitude toward its most important resource during a period of rapid growth.

Consultants hired to assess the city’s rate of water usage relative to its growth -- and the total amount of water available -- determined that were it to maintain its current rate of usage, southern Nevada would run out of water by 1995.

Stopping growth in Las Vegas, of all places, was unconscionable.

Public information campaigns and the purchasing of water rights in rural Nevada helped Las Vegas cling on by stemming the number of gallons per-capita per day (gpcd) used. But then disaster struck, and this which became the catalyst for change that the city needed.

In 2002, the Colorado River, which produces nearly all of the city’s water via Lake Mead, produced 25% of its average output. Lake Mead sank 130 feet in a year and Las Vegas exceeded the limits of its water allocation at a time when it was one of the fastest growing communities in the US.

“It was like having a credit card pulled from your hands. Suddenly we had to start saving, but a lifestyle was built to depend on that credit card,” says Doug Bennet, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) conservation manager.

Las Vegas rises to the challenge

If Las Vegas had only indoor water use, the city would have a near limitless supply as that water is treated and channelled back into Lake Mead before it is reused. Given this reality, casinos -- not usually known for moderation -- represent just 3% to 4% of the city’s consumptive use.

The real problem lies outdoors and in the residential sector.

60% of Las Vegas’ water supply is for outdoor use, as every tree, garden and patch of grass needs irrigating -- but water that evaporates is of no use to the city.

Consequently, measures limiting outdoor usage were enacted that would set Las Vegas on its way to almost halving its per capita usage and significantly reducing consumption.

Until the late 1990s, grass dominated the Las Vegas landscape, but it is now considered a luxury that the community cannot afford. SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes program engaged the public through a series of financial incentives -- $3 per square foot -- to replace turf with indigenous plants (xeriscape).

Golf courses were given a yearly budget, limiting the amount of water they could use per acre. This resulted in the equivalent of nine courses being removed. They now use reclaimed water, water already on its way out of the city, to irrigate their grounds.

In addition to these measures, new development codes introduced in 2004 meant no turf was allowed outside of the residential sector. New residents -- often migrating from rainier states and used to greenery -- had to ensure backyards were 50% or less grass. Those converting to drip-irrigated plants now have to ensure that those plants are 50% covered by shade in the middle of the day to mitigate the need for watering.

Thanks to such programs, 4,430 acres of turf have been removed, with 5,000 acres of non-functional turf left -- turf that serves only an aesthetic purpose. So far, the program has saved 130 billion gallons of water.

Seasonal irrigation restrictions were also introduced by the city in collaboration with SNWA, with certain neighborhoods given specific days on which they could use sprinklers -- once a week in winter and six days a week in summer, but not between the hours of 11am and 7pm when water is most likely to evaporate.

Las Vegas Valley Water District’s (LVVWD) affectionately named “water-cops” began patrolling the area 24/7 -- and still do -- with fines distributed for transgressions, beginning at $80 for a first offense. And you’d be hard pressed to find a resident in Las Vegas who is genuinely unaware of such regulations. SNWA sends the rules out in monthly water bills; it sends postcards four times a year; and the organization has taken out television and radio ads and even put information out on social media.

While regulations are usually received negatively, Bronson Mack, who oversees water resources and operations at SNWA, points out that the consumers stood to gain.

“We restricted water use in the winter when the customer didn’t need it,” he says.

“It saved them money. People don't usually change the timers on their sprinklers and so they were over-watering anyway.”

Many Las Vegans listened - 40% of residents now comply with these regulations completely, while an additional 20-30% comply with some of the regulations.

“If we can get just even another 15% of people to comply, we can save another 4.8 billion gallons of water every year,” says Mack.

“It’s about finding creative ways to make people use less water outdoors,” he adds.

In that vein, SNWA gave out vouchers for commercial car washes to encourage people not to wash their cars themselves -- water used by dedicated carwash facilities is recycled, while water used in the driveway is likely to evaporate. They also piloted 8,000 computerized monitors to help detect leaks. These saved 290 million gallons of water in their first decade of use, with more wide-scale distribution ongoing. Over 2,800 smart irrigation clocks that monitor and control irrigation based on the season and rainfall were distributed in the residential sector, saving almost 71 million gallons.

Since the drought, a culture of saving and moderation has been maintained thanks to the ongoing efforts of SNWA and LVVWD, and passed on with the help of wide-scale outreach projects.

The educational springs preserve center, for example, features a museum and botanical gardens that promotes sustainable living, design and architecture with a focus on water. The center drew 295,000 guests last year thanks to daily field trips from local schools, as well as through hosting concerts, wine-tasting and this year’s Nevada primaries.

The results speak for themselves. Since 2002, southern Nevada’s population is up 46% yet the region’s Colorado River consumption is down 25%. Water usage per capita has also dropped by 46% - according to the latest in data in 2018. That year, Las Vegas used only 80% of its allocation from the Colorado River, while Lake Mead is also estimated to be 36 feet higher today than it would have been were such conservation measures not introduced.

Bennet explains that the agency alone couldn’t account for the results, and that Las Vegans were and still are doing a lot of intangible, unmeasurable things on their own as they rally to conserve.

The city has now turned to a 50-year sustainability plan that aims to bring per-capita usage down from 113 to 105 gallons per day by 2035. It plans to do achieve this goal by investing in new conservation measures such as evaporative cooling, new development standards, and the wide-scale distribution of smart meters that can track which homes are overusing water before sending out an automated e-mail to inform the consumer.

Mission not yet accomplished

Critics are right to point out that new development warps current averages. Las Vegas’ per-capita numbers drop as developers expand the city under new regulations, giving the impression of sustainability but increasing consumption and overall usage when new industries and residents enter the valley -- all requiring water.

So while Las Vegas’ response has been effective, there’s no room for rest.

There are still the majority who don’t fully comply with the city’s water regulations. And the worst offenders? The more affluent residents willing to pay the water fines if it means they get to maintain luscious gardens in the desert.

And though 113 gpcd, the current measurement, marks a massive reduction on pre-drought figures of 211 gpcd, this is still much higher than other cities in the southwest. While different communities have different ways of calculating gdcp, some environmentalists argue that only through strict rationing or growth limits can Las Vegas exist sustainably.

Daniel Gerrity, an assistant professor in environmental engineering at the University of Las Vegas, is one such voice. “At some point you have too many people in one area,” says Gerrity. “I think there’s still a lot of growth that can happen in southern Nevada, but it’s not a bad thing that one day we shouldn’t grow anymore.”

Of course, people -- especially in government and big business -- don’t like to talk about limiting growth, but the reality is that water and conservation are limited. And conservation efforts are only effective as long as they stay ahead of the factors that are constantly pushing them.

SNWA now serve a population of 2.2 million, up from 1.5 million in 2002 and still growing by 2,800 people every month. Climate change is also pushing the city to its limits.

In fact, Las Vegas is the fastest warming city in the US. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that without global action, Las Vegas will experience 71 days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 -- historically they average just 18. The impacts of such climate change are two-fold as less water comes down the Colorado River, and residents use more water in the heat.

For now, the SNWA must play to the beat of Las Vegas’ drum, doing whatever it takes to reduce consumptive use and accommodate for a growing city. But conservation can’t keep up forever, and a city that remains at the mercy of the unpredictable Colorado River cannot risk stretching its limits again.

Las Vegas and southern Nevada have made great strides -- and deserve credit for taking drastic action, credit that Bennet says is, in part, a result of the worst drought in the city’s history. “It’s in our culture -- we need to be pushed to the edge of the cliff and then we will grip on.”

“But had it happened years later, it would’ve been so difficult to turn that ship around.”

Frederick is a journalist from England, member of Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism

The Solutions Journalism Network provided support of the story.