Las Vegas growth depends on dwindling water supply

LAKE MEAD, Nevada Tue Aug 21, 2007 7:28pm EDT

1 of 2. The Las Vegas skyline is seen in a 2004 file photo. The dramatic desiccation amid a multi-year Western drought highlights the difficult situation facing Las Vegas, one of America's fastest growing cities, whose economic future depends on the continued supply of water.

Credit: Reuters/Ethan Miller

LAKE MEAD, Nevada (Reuters) - Two wooden piers that once extended into Lake Mead, Nevada, now loom over a desert landscape, monuments to the insatiable need for water in nearby Las Vegas and other parts.

A "No Fishing" sign perhaps 600 hundred yards from the shrinking lake and a ring of white magnesium deposits marks the high water level like a giant, half-full bath tub that has dropped more than 100 feet in seven years.

The dramatic desiccation amid a multi-year Western drought highlights the difficult situation facing Las Vegas, one of America's fastest growing cities, whose economic future depends on the continued supply of water.

"Las Vegas is growing too fast for its water resources, not, unfortunately, unlike many other Western cities," said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.

"Las Vegas is a special case for two reasons: it is growing very rapidly and the second is they are really constrained on water supply."

Built in a desert, Las Vegas has long seemed an unlikely place for a major American city. Yet the Las Vegas region is booming: Its population is 1.9 million, up nearly 50 percent since 1999, amid an expanding tourism and casino business.

At the same time, the West has suffered a sustained drought, with the Colorado River supplying less water to Lake Mead, which serves Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The lake created by Hoover Dam provides 90 percent of Vegas water and stands less than half full.

DIFFERENT KIND OF GROWTH

Las Vegas is adjusting by more efficiently using its current supplies and is planning to build a $2.5 billion to $3 billion pipeline to bring aquifer water from a remote part of Nevada by 2015, said Pat Mulroy, long-time head of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

She disagrees that Vegas, where on average four inches of rain falls each year, is growing too fast for its water. "We like every other Western city are going through a shift in how we use water resources," she said in an interview. "It is sustainable for the next 50 to 80 years."

"A very different type of growth going on. What you see is one far more conscious of water resources, one that that takes advantage of desert plant life, builds communities that are there to celebrate living in the desert rather than to defy living in the desert."

The gambling capital recycles waste water, but loses much by feeding thirsty vegetation such as grass. The city's water district now pays homeowners to remove grass, and has seen per capita usage fall in recent years.

"There is enough water in the West to support growth well into the future," said John Ritter, chairman of the Focus Property Group, which seeks to build environmentally friendly housing. "Vegas in 2000 was probably one of the poster children on how to waste water and today we are probably an example on how to use water efficiently."

WATER WASTE

Yet signs of water waste are still easy to find. A late morning drive through Henderson, an adjacent city where many Las Vegas workers live, found many sprinklers spraying in 107 Fahrenheit (42 Celsius) heat, including in city parks.

"This is a city ignoring its own rules," said resident Launce Rake, an official with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "There's no real commitment to conservation; they run all through the day."

A sign at one of the Henderson parks sprinkling under a blazing sun invited those concerned about water use to call a helpline number. The line was disconnected.

Las Vegas Strip hotels boast ornate fountains, and the Bellagio stages shows with dancing jets of water throughout the day accompanied by music. But overall the casinos and hotels take in just 7 percent of the area's water and consume 3 percent when recycled water is put back into the system, Mulroy said.

Water remains inexpensive. In summer, an average Vegas household uses 17,000 gallons per month and pays $36.64 (or about 2 cents per 10 gallons), and 11,000 gallons in winter for $21, according to the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

"Relative to other cities the cost of water in Las Vegas is a real steal," said developer Ritter. "If it cost people more I think they would use less."

Mulroy disagrees about the impact of higher prices.

"It would just irritate people," she said. "To simply throw out a gross rate increase, it's not going to create the necessary results. I mean look what's happening with gasoline: people are not using less gas as a result of it."

Some environmentalists say Vegas and other Western cities with limited sources should limit growth to preserve water.

Mayor Oscar Goodman disagrees, saying the city's economic boom will fund future water needs. "I hate to be a pragmatist but the bottom line really is that we'll never run out of water as long as we can pay for it," he said.

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