Las Vegas has long been a place to play the odds, but at a certain point the house always starts cashing in. That’s true at the blackjack table, and it’s true with Mother Nature. Case in point: Las Vegas has always bet that, no matter how fast or how big it grew, there would be enough water. But here in the driest desert in North America, hope and luck only get you so far.
The reality is that—in the face of climate change, drought and years of out-of-control urban sprawl—we simply don’t have the water to keep doing what we’ve done for years. A new report by the Department of the Interior raises serious questions about the ability of the Colorado River, our main source of water, to meet demand in the coming decades.
Some, such as the Southern Nevada Water Authority, believe we should simply add more infrastructure to continue to feed the unquenchable thirst for growth. The agency proposes a 300-mile pipeline to mine ancient groundwater left by the last ice age and divert it to Las Vegas—at a cost of $15.7 billion and rising. True enough, if completed, this scheme would bring short-term relief to the Valley—until the aquifers were depleted, rural communities and native wildlife went extinct, and laws protecting the environment kicked in. All it would take would be the average Las Vegas Valley residential water bill increasing from $36 a month to more than $90, and a similar (or worse) burden on small businesses and commercial properties.
Others believe, as I do, that there’s a better, more rational and less costly alternative. I see it as consisting of four independent steps. First, the community has to come to grips with the need for a more sustainable approach to growth. Instead of bigger, we need to think viable and livable.
Next, we need increased efforts to conserve and stretch our scarce water resources. Not just the meager cash-for-grass program, but an expanded program that looks to increased indoor as well as outdoor conservation—low-flush toilets, re-circulating hot-water systems and dual potable and gray-water systems. Our per-capita consumption must rapidly fall from its present 220 gallons per day to somewhere beneath 190, thereby creating “free” water to sustain modest growth in the short term.
The Law of the River must be revamped to meet current realities. The 1922 agreement overallocated the waters of the Colorado River from the start and fails to take into account urban needs and climate change. Under the present law, 78 percent of the Colorado River water goes to irrigating agriculture—much of it inedible crops such as cotton and hay. This is a job for the federal government, supported by state and local governments and tied to sensible growth management region-wide.
Lastly, rather than spending on a short-term pipeline, infrastructure funds should be programmed for looking to the rising oceans and desalinized water. Countries such as Israel, Australia and Saudi Arabia already look to this source for much of their needs, and whether it is traded for California or Mexico’s share of river water, or pumped via solar energy generated from its own right of way, we should, too. While desalinization has its own set of issues, if we start now, there is time for developing solutions to address them.
All of these steps are doable, rational and grounded in the reality that, if we’re going to continue living in a place where water is only becoming more scarce, we can’t rely on old ideas that got us here in the first place.