(This story is part of a Reuters series on infrastructure)
* Western cities curb water use rather than curb growth
* Las Vegas bets $3 billion on new, distant water supply
* Southwest cities factoring in climate change
By Tim Gaynor and Steve Gorman
LAS VEGAS/LOS ANGELES, March 11 Desert golf
course superintendent Bill Rohret is doing something that 20
years ago would have seemed unthinkable -- ripping up bright,
green turf by the acre and replacing it with rocks.
Back then "they came in with bulldozers and dynamite, and
they took the desert and turned it into a green oasis," Rohret
said, surveying a rock-lined fairway within sight of the Las
Vegas strip. "Now ... it's just the reverse."
The Angel Park Golf Club has torn out 65 acres (26
hectares) of off-course grass in the last five years, and 15 (6
hectares) more will be removed by 2011, to help conserve local
supplies of one of the most precious commodities in the parched
American West -- fresh water.
But Rohret's efforts have their limits. His and many other
golf courses still pride themselves on their pristine greens
and fairways and sparkling fountains, requiring huge daily
expenditures of water.
Aiming to cut per capita use by about a third in the face of
withering drought expected to worsen with global warming, water
authorities in the United States' driest major city are paying
customers $1.50 per square foot to replace grass lawns with desert
Built in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas leads Western U.S.
cities scrambling to slash water consumption, increase
recycling and squeeze more from underground aquifers as
long-reliable surface water sources dry up.
From handing out fines for leaky sprinklers to charging
homeowners high rates for high use, water officials in the U.S.
West are chasing down squandered water one gallon at a time.
Nowhere is the sense of crisis more visible than on the
outskirts of Las Vegas at Lake Mead, the nation's largest
manmade reservoir, fed by the once-mighty Colorado River. A
principal source of water for Nevada and Southern California,
the lake has dipped to below half its capacity, leaving an
ominous, white "bathtub ring" that grows thicker each year.
"We are in the eye of the storm," said Pat Mulroy, general
manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "As the
realities of climate change began to manifest themselves at the
beginning of this century, we had to get serious about it."
For now, policymakers have emphasized the need to curb
water use rather than urban growth, though the U.S. recession
has put the brakes on commercial and housing development that
otherwise would be at odds with the West's water scarcity.
Warm, dry weather has long made the American West
attractive to visitors, but piped-in water has created
artificial oases, luring millions to settle in the region. Las
Vegas has ranked as one of the fastest-growing major cities.
But scientists say climate change is shriveling the snow
pack in California's Sierra Nevada, the state's main source of
fresh surface water, and in the Rocky Mountains that feed the
Colorado River, whose waters sustain seven states.
Further pressure from farming and urban sprawl is straining
underground aquifers, placing a question mark over the future
growth of cities from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona.
"There is going to have to be a big adjustment in the
American Southwest and in California as we come to grips with
limits in this century -- not just limited water, but also
limited water supply," said James Powell, author of the book
"Dead Pool," exploring challenges facing planners in the West.
Reactions among local water authorities differ.
In Phoenix, the United States' fifth-largest city,
authorities say sustainable groundwater and ample surface water
allocations from the Colorado and Salt rivers meet the city's
needs, even factoring in growth through a moderate drought. The
city is also recycling waste water and plans to pump some back
into the aquifer as a cushion.
Tucson will require new businesses to start collecting
rainwater for irrigation in 2010.
California requires developers of large housing projects to
prove they have sufficient water.
In Las Vegas, where rain is so infrequent that some
residents can remember the days it fell in a given year,
front-yard turf has been banned for new homes.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority also has hired "water
cops" to fan out into the suburbs to identify violations of
mandatory lawn irrigation schedules and wasteful run-off.
Repeat offenders get $80 fines.
Major hotel-casinos such as the MGM Mirage and Harrah's
Entertainment have adopted "green" building codes, including
modifications designed to slash water use by 40 percent.
Those measures are starting to pay off, with daily water
use down 15 percent per person in the greater Las Vegas area.
In a wake-up call to California, water officials there
recently announced that prolonged drought was forcing them to
cut Sierra-fed supplies pumped to cities and irrigation
districts by 85 percent.
That has led many California cities, topped by Los Angeles,
the nation's second-largest, to plan for rationing, including
price-enforced household conservation and tough new lawn
"The level of severity of this drought is something we
haven't seen since the early 1970s," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa said in unveiling his city's drought plan, which
also would put more water cops on the beat.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month called on
the state's urban users to cut water consumption 20 percent or
face mandatory conservation measures.
The California drought, now in its third year, is the
state's costliest ever. Complicating matters are sharp
restrictions on how much water can be pumped from the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in northern California, which
furnishes much of the state's irrigation and drinking supplies,
to protect endangered fish species.
Moreover, the severe dry spell is leaving the state more
vulnerable to wildfires, which last year consumed some several
Los Angeles suburbs. The previous year, fires forced a record
500,000 Southern Californians to flee their homes.
PLANNING FOR THE WORST
Conservation will buy time, experts say. But bolder steps
are needed in anticipation of longer droughts and renewed urban
expansion once the recession ends.
Cities like Los Angeles and San Diego are revisiting an
idea once abandoned in the face of staunch political opposition
-- recycling purified sewer water for drinking supplies.
Disparaged by critics as "toilet-to-tap," such recycling
plans have gained new currency from the success of the year-old
Groundwater Replenishing System in Orange County near Los
That system distills wastewater through advanced treatment
and pumps it into the ground to recharge the area's aquifer,
providing drinking supplies for 500,000 people, including
residents of Anaheim, home of Disneyland.
Water specialists also see a need to capture more rainfall
runoff that otherwise flows out to sea and to change the
operation of dams originally built for flood control to
maximize their storage capacity.
The situation in Las Vegas has grown so dire that water
authorities plan to build a $3 billion pipeline to tap aquifers
lying beneath a remote part of Nevada, a project critics call
the greatest urban water grab in decades.
Southern Nevada water czar Mulroy says a broader national
conversation about water is needed -- but not happening.
"We are talking about investing in public infrastructure,
we are looking at building projects, but I get frustrated
because we are doing it in complete denial of the climate
change conditions that we are facing," she said.
"We are not looking at where the oceans are rising, where
the floods are going to occur, where things are going to go
from that normal state to something extraordinary."
(Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles, editing
by Alan Elsner)