Julie Jacobson, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — Deep beneath Lake Mead, a 23-foot-tall tunnel-boring machine grinds through stubborn bedrock in a billion-dollar effort to make sure water continues flowing to this thirsty resort city.
For six years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has been building an intake straw below the reservoir’s two existing pipes. Due for completion in fall 2015, critics say it may not provide a long-term solution.
An ongoing drought and the Colorado River’s stunted flow have shrunk Lake Mead to its lowest level in generations. The reservoir, which supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water, is ebbing as though a plug had been pulled from a bathtub drain. By mid-April, Lake Mead’s water level measured just 48 feet above the system’s topmost intake straw.
Future droughts and a warming climate change could spell trouble for the city’s 2 million residents — and its 40 million annual visitors. Those people “better hope nothing goes wrong with the last intake,” said water authority spokesman J.C. Davis.
“But if something does go wrong,” he added, “we’re in the business of making contingency plans.”
For officials here, the scenario signifies a formidable job: providing water for the nation’s driest city. Las Vegas uses more water per capita than most communities in America — 219 gallons of water per person every day — and charges less for it than many communities.
Summer temperatures top 115 degrees in a scorched environment that in a banner year receives a paltry 4 inches of rain. The inhospitable conditions have pushed officials to develop water conservation programs considered models worldwide.
Although this spring’s snowmelt could temporarily replenish Lake Mead, the city’s future still looks drier than ever, a prospect that has prompted the water authority to eye such long-term plans as a desalinization plant in California and a $15 billion pipeline to move water here from other parts of the state.
Environmentalists blast the proposed pipeline from central Nevada as irresponsible, calling it a resource grab comparable to William Mulholland’s move that created an aqueduct to transport water south from California’s Owens Valley to help expand Los Angeles a century ago.
They say the city has been cavalier about looming water shortages, pointing to projects such as Lake Las Vegas, a 320-acre artificial oasis built with man-made rivers and waterfalls amid the high-end homes and luxury resorts.
But water use — and how to curtail it — poses a complex puzzle, officials say. Take the casinos.
John Entsminger, the water authority’s new general manager, says such seemingly careless spectacles as the elaborate fountains at the Bellagio resort feature recycled water. “The Strip uses only 3 percent of the region’s water but supplies 70 percent of its economy,” he said. “That’s not a bad bargain.”
Officials say they have prepared for myriad possible scenarios, including an emergency slashing of Las Vegas’ annual water allotment. “It’s important to remember that this would happen over a period of years, not months and not weeks,” Davis said of such a cutback. “You don’t wake up one morning and ask, ‘Where did all the water go?’ ”
Still, water officials here acknowledge that their challenge is to keep Las Vegas livable while reining in several older neighborhoods that have resisted taking out lawns and other conservation measures. The authority has already achieved a remarkable feat: In recent years, Las Vegas and its suburbs have cut water use by one-third while adding 400,000 residents.
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