Are we ready to shift our community crisis mode from “underwater” to “out-of-water”? Doesn’t feel like it. That’s despite the fact that our main water source, Lake Mead, is heading for another record low by this time next year (1,075 feet), when regional rationing begins. Despite this being the 14th year of drought on the Colorado River Basin, with the possibility that it’s less a drought than our region’s new norm. Despite the troubles in California, where they’re working to cut water use by 20 percent, because they have to.
Meanwhile, virtually everyone’s sprinklers still go on when it rains. We still stand in the shower as long as we want to. Unlike those midsummer electric bills, we pay for our water without much regret. And we plan for more and more population growth—after a slowdown that started with the burst of the housing bubble—even though there will be less and less water.
Thanks to the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), we have made a monumental turnaround in the past quarter century, cutting water usage by 40 percent per person. Many of us have figured out how to live without grass in our front yards. We’ve gotten the message that “it’s a desert out there” via a series of funny, award-winning commercials.
But we still seem to be lacking enough public concern to nudge us toward truly being what the SNWA calls “a model city” of water efficiency—or merely one that plans to be around for another 100 years.
Here, at the crossroads, comes SNWA’s latest four-year conservation plan, the first in its new era of leadership, due to be finalized next month. A preliminary look reveals that it’s not much different than the old plan. However, a citizens advisory group is working on some conservation suggestions, which, if approved, will be added to the plan within the next year.
As concerned citizens ourselves, on the occasion of Earth Day, we’re offering our own suggestions on how to better tackle our most vital issue.
1. Let’s act like we’re a model city
Seen in the New York Times recently: “Officials [in Southern Nevada] boast that everyone could take a 20-minute shower every day without increasing the city’s water consumption by a drop.”
Putting aside whether that makes conservation sense or not (see point No. 2), how does that statement make you feel? Proud? Embarrassed? Nothing at all? Whatever the case, it probably doesn’t convince you to take a shorter shower, although we live in a place with only 4 inches of rain per year. The SNWA website points out that “a family of four taking daily five-minute showers with a high-efficiency showerhead can save more than 20,000 gallons of water each year,” but even if you’ve run into that fact, there’s not much incentive to apply the knowledge.
This is partly because that water you’re using actually costs less than in most Western cities, including Seattle (37.5 inches of rain per year), which is great for our libertarian spirit and wallets, but not for our grasp of sustainability. And it’s not just money; our community also sides with consumerism in tone. Look at this excerpt from the FAQ section of the SNWA webpage regarding the recent (and modest) water-rate hike:
Will this increase make water bills unaffordable? Even after the additional charge is incorporated, water bills in Southern Nevada will remain less than in the average Western city despite our arid climate. Cities with similar traits such as size, population or climate such as Santa Fe, San Diego, Phoenix and Seattle all pay higher water rates.
What our rates should be is a whole other cover story (although we will share that Brett Walton of CircleOfBlue.org says, “In most cities, the cost of water for the customer is far too low to incentivize conservation”), but such appeasements leave us with an ambiguous feeling:
Is it a desert out there or not?
What’s our message—to ourselves, to the Southwest, to the readers of The New York Times? It needs to be stronger than reminders about watering our lawns at the right times. We’ve outgrown that stage as a community.
And what about the 40 million annual visitors who make our water district unique—not to mention impossible to compare with other districts—because they factor into our per-capita-water-use formula? Do they care that it’s a desert out here? Right now, 28,000 of our 150,000 hotel rooms have invitations for guests to skip linen service, for example. Maybe we should try to get half of them onboard by year’s end. That’s a lot of towels.
Times are changing. Habits need to change, too. In this new drought-ravaged era, that starts with a more urgent dialogue about what’s at stake and a tougher attitude about living within our means—a means that’s changing as sure as luck at a craps table.
The good news is, we hear that the SNWA is working on a next-generation ad campaign, targeting a whole different type of water-consuming agenda. We expect it will inspire us in a variety of new ways.
2. Put indoor-water use back into the conservation conversation
If you were alive in America in the late 1970s, you probably remember the first California water crisis and its accompanying catchphrase, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” encouraging residents to not flush their toilets after “No. 1.”
Here in the desert, where our allotment from the Colorado River has been set since 1922, when Clark County had a population of less than 5,000, there’s too little discussion about indoor water use, let alone a campaign designed to change habits.
We do a great job of managing our river allotment—300,000 acre-feet per year. Nearly all of Southern Nevada’s indoor water (some 200,000 acre-feet) is recycled and—because we get credit back—reused. With this credit, we get a total of 500,000 acre-feet. That’s where we get the idea that we can take a 20-minute shower. (And why buy the type of showerhead the SNWA recommends when the water from your inefficient showerhead gets recycled anyway?) It’s also why the SNWA spends most of its resources—commercial dollars, rebate programs, etc.—going after outdoor water waste, which is 60 percent of total consumption.
While this perpetual motion machine works from an accounting perspective, it isn’t optimal holistically, says Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute, a California-based environmental think-tank. There are “energy and water-quality impacts” from treating and pumping the water, plus the infrastructural costs of doing so.
“A different way to look at it would be to ask, if net water use is the same but indoor conservation would save energy and improve water quality, why wouldn’t you promote indoor conservation?” Cohen says.
Maybe the new SNWA will soon get to that, especially since we will eventually be dividing a smaller pie overall (the river is losing water), and all states may have to use less, whether they recycle or not.
Meanwhile, let’s not overlook the fact that it’s our responsibility as citizens to make ourselves aware of DIY conservation options and to take personal, if not community, pride in gained efficiencies. See our sidebar for tips on how to get there.
By the way, we called the health department, and rest assured, it is indeed safe to not flush after No. 1. Just leave the lid down.
3. Get more commercial properties, apartment complexes and homeowners associations onboard
One day in late February, you hear that the forecast calls for rain tomorrow. So, before you forget, you dutifully run to the garage and shut off your sprinklers. Sure enough, it does rain the next morning—early and often. On the way to work, you pass three strip malls along Sunset Road, including Green Valley Town Center, that have their sprinklers going, oblivious to the fact that their sprawling swaths of turf are already being soaked. The rain continues off and on the rest of the day, at the end of which, you drive home to your neighborhood, where the community sprinklers are spraying like there’s no tomorrow.
We don’t have to tell you that’s a true story. You’ve seen it yourself. You’ve also had your car inadvertently “washed” by spastic sprinklers in the median. You’ve seen apartment sprinklers on at illogical times. You may have even seen broken valve boxes gush water at the city park for days on end. It’s all very deflating for the homeowner who tries not to be a water-waster.
Commercial and community properties are not only responsible for large chunks of landscaping, their choices are highly visible. They’re in positions of leadership.
“Our message to commercial properties is that their ‘problem drinker’ is hurting their bottom line,” says J.C. Davis, spokesman for the SNWA. “In all seriousness, we have found businesses are far more motivated by the cost savings than by a sense of responsibility.”
And yet it continues, in commercial spaces as well as those run by your association. How can we better leverage these entities, and make them the conduit to the consumer, taking water-smart steps at every possible turn?
If they haven’t bitten on SNWA’s “cash for grass” or rain-sensor offers (part of its Water Efficient Technologies program), maybe it is all about the rates. Or maybe it’s time for harsher municipal fines for water abuse—at least when it rains.
Meanwhile, we can all at least write to our associations and set them straight. And know that SNWA says it’s working to target commercial properties that had once expressed interest in water-smart landscape incentives but never followed through.
4. Enough talk about our being a sustainable, model community without addressing growth
The SNWA predicts it will save 276,000 acre-feet a year by 2035. One problem with that math: The SNWA factors in significant population growth, based on projections from UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research, which shows Clark County with another 850,000 people by then—and another half million by 2050. Well, here’s some new math: finite resource = finite population.
Some Western cities—most notably Portland, Oregon—have instituted urban-growth boundaries without bringing economic and cultural stagnation. What boundaries do tend to do, however, is increase the value of land within the boundary—and thus increase housing prices. A 2009 Portland State University study concluded that prices within the city’s urban-growth boundary rose at nearly twice the rate of those in nearby jurisdictions without a boundary.
To provide a pressure valve for population increase and rising land prices, cities with growth boundaries rely on greater urban density, which in turn leads to more efficient use of infrastructure and resources—a town home is not as thirsty as a half-acre ranch house. Historically, the Southwest doesn’t much care for density, but urban-planning trends in places such as Scottsdale and even—in an embryonic form—Downtown Las Vegas are making the leap more culturally palatable. In 1997, when state Senator Dina Titus—now a congresswoman—proposed a “ring around the Valley,” the idea never got traction. As the area’s water problems intensify, though, the proposal may merit a second look.
But by whom? SNWA will tell you that it’s actually the job of Western water managers to prepare for population increases. And it appears there’s little political will to retrain Southern Nevadans.
“If you ask the County Commission, they say, ‘The SNWA hasn’t alerted us that there’s a problem with water and population growth,’” says John Hiatt, director of the Desert Wetlands Conservancy. “If you ask the SNWA, they say, ‘We have to supply water to whoever asks for it.’ Both say they do not have the authority to control growth. It’s a very large scenario of plausible deniability. No one wants to address it. The person who stands up and says, ‘We need to do something about this’ won’t have a job for very much longer.”
Plausible deniability, Hiatt says, is fast becoming an unaffordable luxury with states now looking to take their full allotments from the Colorado River.
“No one wants to infringe on the rights that help make America the country she is, but what happens when migration rights infringe upon living rights?” he asks. “When water is on the line, life is on the line. We may not be in a life-or-death situation yet, but something needs to be done now to stop that dismal future from playing out. The SNWA and the County Commission need to work together on this project—now, before it is too late.”
Even if the water supply restrictions don’t end up affecting us, we simply can’t ever grow like we did in the last two decades of the 20th century. We can’t sustain another 1.3 million people, as is projected for 2050.
“On the Colorado, the long-term concern for SNWA is … a recognition that the 300,000 acre-feet that the agency gets today is probably the best it’s ever going to get,” says Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado. “There’s no upside.”
And SNWA’s proposed deus ex machina—the pipeline that would take groundwater from northeastern Nevada—is fraught with political, legal and financial challenges. For one thing, its cost has been estimated at anywhere from $7 billion to $15 billion. For another, the people of northeastern Nevada are none too pleased at the prospect of having their water taken from them.
5. Drop the pipeline dream
On the surface, the pipeline logic is compelling: The state does not need to go outside its means because there’s plenty of water here—it’s just in the wrong part of the state. But then you look below the surface, and it’s a lot less pretty.
“It is very expensive, and it won’t replace the Colorado River water,” Hiatt says. “It will be about one-third of present usage. There are a lot of better and more efficient ways to fix the problem. For instance, 10 percent of usage is water being lost to leaks in the pipes. We should be able to fix this and get 10 percent of our water back.”
“The real solution,” Kenney says, “is that the seven states as a whole just need to use less water. That’s a much more practical solution than trying to find more water to bring into the basin. A lot of people talk about pipelines to bring water into the basin, but that’s just not practical. The solution is to use less water in the basin—and there are a lot of opportunities to do that.”
The pipeline is not living within our means. And we bet there are better ways to spend those billions.
6. More out-of-the-box innovation
“When talking about the states that use the Colorado River, Nevada is different from the other six because it uses its water in urban areas,” Kenney says. “A lot of the tricks and strategies that other places, like California, would use—temporarily stopping some agriculture, for instance—aren’t viable in Las Vegas.”
One far-out option is that Nevada could help finance desalination in California (it’s very expensive). If we’d help fund the studies and implementation so that California can get a large part of its water from the ocean, we could get part of California’s Colorado River allocation.
Here’s another type of trade agreement: Get another state to implement a water conservation program, and redirect some of those benefits to Las Vegas. “You have to set up the rules that give everyone some incentive to take action to conserve water,” Kenney says. The most obvious of the “creative arrangements” to him would involve a form of interstate water marketing. “For example, a deal in which Las Vegas pays to fallow some low-value crops upstream—perhaps in Wyoming or Colorado—and gets to use that saved water as it flows downstream. That sort of arrangement has never existed on the river, and to do so may require some significant legal changes. But over the past year, there’s been some discussions in which Lower Basin cities are looking to finance some Upper Basin fallowing—all with the knowledge that this should increase water flowing downstream and should help the storage situation in Lake Mead, which has obvious benefits for Las Vegas.”
On the other side of the spectrum—consumer demand—we could turn household or even corporate water conservation into a fun and potentially profitable challenge. Make it easier for people to see how much water they’re using and break it down, indoors and out. Houses could have a thermostat-size screen that shows daily water usage. When families see themselves reaching, say, 200 gallons indoors (said to be a water-efficient goal for a family of four), they could think clearly about how to cut back. SNWA could even sweeten the pot with prizes—gift certificates and coupons for local merchants and restaurants—awarded to families that “keep it under 200” each day for an entire month.