Las Vegas Isn’t the Water Spendthrift You Think It Is

Photo by L. Powell

Photo by L. Powell

When are we finally going to address our water supply problem?

Welcome to Las Vegas! You must be new here to not know that we are (and have been) addressing this concern for decades. If you look closely, you’ll notice the pricey tiered-usage rates that financially punish so-called water wasters, the assigned watering groups that determine the day(s) of the week you can irrigate your landscape and the “water police”—water district employees who cruise around looking for violators and investigating reports of waste called in by (ahem) neighbors.

Other policies intended to boost water conservation in Southern Nevada include recommending low-flow showerheads (2.5 gallons per minute) and landscaping (no big lawns!) permitted in new developments, while offering financial incentives to residents who replace existing lawns with water-friendly landscaping. Additionally, Las Vegas has for decades been very good at community-scale wastewater reclamation, treating effluent and runoff from Las Vegas Wash and releasing it back into Lake Mead.

All of this has come about by necessity. Southern Nevada’s water allocation from the Colorado River and Lake Mead was fixed by the Colorado River Compact in 1922; meanwhile, our population has increased by a factor of 400. And while Las Vegas could have helped by stemming the population tide in the 1990s (there was the infamous “ring around the city” proposal intended to foster density and limit growth), that would have been antithetical to our city’s free-market approach.

Still, we must be making progress; according to a recent report produced by the Fronteras news organization and aired on KNPR, Las Vegas is the most successful water-conservation and reclamation city in the United States. That’s a good thing. What isn’t is that during that same Fronteras report, one of the experts interviewed suggested that there is no need for lawn restrictions in places like Ohio, because, obviously, they have too much water.

As Carl Sagan’s Cosmos suggests, that is a small-minded approach to a whole Earth problem. As any hydrologist will tell you, there is a fixed amount of water on our planet that gets recycled throughout the global ecosystem. When Las Vegas was founded in 1905, Earth’s human population was less than 2 billion. Between 2020 and 2030, it is expected to breach 8 billion. By 2050? Ten billion. If severe need manifests severe action, as it has in Southern Nevada, the rest of the world needs to get on board, and fast. Ironic that a libertarian city is a global leader in conservation, isn’t it?