Vegas’ water drying up

By John M. Glionna

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2014 8:27 p.m. MDT

It was done in part with a $200 million fund to provide rebates for replacing grass with desert landscapes. Las Vegas also recycles all water that goes down the drain from dishwashers, sinks, showers and even toilets, and after reprocessing, it is pumped back into Lake Mead. With each gallon returned to the reservoir, the city gets to take another out.

The water authority plans to cut per-capita water use even further to 199 gallons a day by 2035, a rate still higher than California’s present average of 182 gallons.

The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people across the Southwest — the majority of them in cities such as Las Vegas. The region’s population is expected to almost double by 2060. In that time, Las Vegas will gain 1 million residents, forecasters say.

Many water experts say Las Vegas needs to immediately take a series of no-nonsense steps to help control its water shortage: Cut indoor as well as outdoor use; charge much more for water and punish abusers with precipitously higher rates; and start disclosing the rate of a neighbor’s water use in residential bills to create more social pressure to conserve.

“At some point, you have to live within your means, but that doesn’t fit with the image of Las Vegas,” said Steve Erickson, Utah coordinator for the Great Basin Water Network, an advocacy group. “These people need to remember that it’s a city built upon an inhospitable desert. What were they thinking?”

When it comes to water, this city has long been at a disadvantage: A 1922 Colorado River water-sharing agreement among seven Western states — one still in effect nearly a century later — gives Southern Nevada the smallest allotment of all: just 300,000 acre-feet a year. An acre-foot can supply two average homes for one year.

Worse, unlike such cities as Phoenix and Los Angeles, Las Vegas has just one major water source — Lake Mead — putting it most at risk during a prolonged drought and dwindling lake water reserves. The city receives a scant 10 percent of its water from underground local aquifers.

Officials say Las Vegas uses only 80 percent of its Colorado River allotment and is banking the rest for the future. But critics say that even if the city taps all of its entitled water, that amount would still not be enough to meet its needs in a prolonged drought. And after years of recession, building is starting to come back here, leaving many to ask: Where are all these new residents going to get their water?

“How foolish can you be? It’s the same fatal error being repeated all over the Southwest — there is no new water,” said Tim Barnett, a marine physicist at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and co-author of two reports about dwindling Western water resources. His research concluded that without massive cutbacks in water use, Lake Mead had a 50 percent chance of deteriorating to “dead pool” by 2036. That’s the level at which the reservoir’s surface drops beneath Las Vegas’ lowest water intake.

Yet casinos and developers continue to push growth, and critics say lawmakers often seem to lack the willpower to draw the line. “Will Las Vegas remain a boom town in the 21st century? The city wants to appear confident but it’s a place built on illusion and luck,” said Emily Green, an environmental journalist who writes about water issues on her blog, Chance of Rain.

“When it comes to water,” she added, “those aren’t very good guiding principles.”

The real water hog is not people, many say, but grass: About 70 percent of Las Vegas water goes to lawns, public parks and golf courses. A rebate program has already ripped out 168 million square feet of grass, enough to lay an 18-inch-wide roll of sod about 85 percent of the way around the Earth.

But is Las Vegas ready to ban grass entirely? “Well, at that point you’re seriously impacting quality of life. We’re not being complacent. We’re just not ready for draconian cuts,” said Davis, the spokesman for the water authority.

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