Why Las Vegas Is at the Heart of Western States’ Water Conundrums

Las Vegas is a city few would associate with conservation. Sprawling urbanization orbits towering casinos that welcome more than 42 million tourists a year, many here to experience the unrestrained consumption the city is famous for. But the city has fought to become a model for water conservation in the Southwest and for arid regions across the globe.

Yet, while Vegas’s efforts can provide a template for others, the city’s past and potentially its future also warrant caution. The Colorado River provides 1 in 10 Americans with their water, and demands are expected to exceed supply by 2040. Well-managed conservation does not offset the damage of the kind of boundless economic growth the U.S. prides itself on: there is only so much water.

Disaster as a Catalyst for Change

A city in the middle of the desert with less rainfall than any other in the nation was bound to have a water problem. During the late 1980s, Las Vegas began to face this problem, having nurtured a spendthrift and reckless attitude toward its most important resource during a period of rapid growth.

Consultants hired to assess the city’s rate of water usage relative to its growth — and the total amount of water available — determined that were it to maintain its current rate of usage, southern Nevada would run out of water by 1995.

Stopping growth in Las Vegas, of all places, was unconscionable to many during this time.

Public information campaigns and the purchasing of water rights in rural Nevada helped Las Vegas cling on by stemming the number of gallons per capita per day (GPCD) used. But then disaster struck, and this became the catalyst for change that the city needed.

In 2002, the Colorado River produced 40 percent of its average water flow. That year, Lake Mead soon became ground zero for the Southwest’s relentless drought, sinking more than 130 feet.

Las Vegas had reached and exceeded the limits of its allocation at a time when it was one of the fastest-growing communities in the U.S.

“It was like having a credit card pulled from your hands,” said Doug Bennett, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) conservation manager. “Suddenly, we had to start saving, but a lifestyle was built to depend on that credit card.”

A road cuts through dry land surrounding a river
The Las Vegas Wash takes water from the city back to Lake Mead.

Las Vegas Rises to the Challenge

If Las Vegas had only indoor water use, the city would have a near limitless supply, as that water is treated and channeled back into Lake Mead before it is reused. Given this reality, casinos — not usually known for moderation — represent just 3 to 4 percent of the city’s consumptive use, according to Bronson Mack, who oversees water resources and operations at SNWA.

The real problem lies outdoors and in the residential sector. Approximately 60 percent of Las Vegas’s water supply is for outdoor use, as every tree, garden and patch of grass needs irrigating. Conservation in the city is all about limiting this outdoor use because water that evaporates counts toward the city’s consumption.

Consequently, measures limiting outdoor usage were enacted that would set Las Vegas on its way to more than halving its per capita usage and set the standard for water conservation in the arid United States.

Until the late 1990s, grass dominated the Las Vegas landscape, but it is now considered a luxury that the community cannot afford. SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes program engaged the public through a series of financial incentives — $3 per square foot — to replace turf with indigenous plants.

Golf courses were given a yearly budget, limiting the amount of water they could use per acre. According to Mack, this resulted in the equivalent of nine courses being removed. Golf courses now use reclaimed water, water already on its way out of the city, to irrigate their grounds.

In addition to these measures, new development codes introduced in 2004 meant no turf was allowed outside of the residential sector. New residents — often migrating from rainier states and used to greenery — had to ensure backyards were 50 percent or less grass. Those converting to drip-irrigated plants now have to ensure that those plants are 50 percent covered by shade in the middle of the day to mitigate the need for watering.

Thanks to such programs, 4,430 acres of turf have been removed, with 5,000 acres of nonfunctional turf left — turf that serves only an aesthetic purpose. So far, the program has saved 130 billion gallons of water.

Seasonal irrigation restrictions were also introduced by the city in collaboration with SNWA, with certain neighborhoods given specific days on which they could use sprinklers — once a week in winter and six days a week in summer, but not between the hours of 11 am and 7 pm when water is most likely to evaporate. Las Vegas Valley Water District’s (LVVWD) “water cops” began patrolling the area 24/7 in 2002 — and still do — with fines beginning at $80 for a first offense.

You would be hard-pressed to find a resident in Las Vegas who is genuinely unaware of such regulations. SNWA sends the rules out in monthly water bills; it sends postcards four times a year; and the organization has taken out television and radio ads, and even put information out on social media.

While regulations are usually received negatively, Mack points out that the consumers stood to gain from such practices.

“We restricted water use in the winter when the customer didn’t need it,” he said. “It saved them money. People don’t usually change the timers on their sprinklers and so they were over-watering anyway.”

Many Las Vegans listened: According to Mack, 40 percent of residents now comply with these regulations completely, while an additional 20-30 percent comply with some of the regulations.

“If we can get just even another 15 percent of people to comply, we can save another 4.8 billion gallons of water every year,” said Mack. “It’s about finding creative ways to make people use less water outdoors.”

In that vein, SNWA gave out vouchers for commercial car washes to encourage people not to wash their cars themselves — water used by dedicated car wash facilities is recycled, while water used in the driveway is likely to evaporate. According to an article in Outside magazine, the Las Vegas Valley Water District also installed 8,000 computerized monitors between 2004 and 2015 to help detect leaks. These saved 290 million gallons of water in their first decade of use, with more wide-scale distribution ongoing. Bennett claims that over 2,800 smart irrigation clocks that monitor and control irrigation based on the season and rainfall have been distributed in the residential sector, saving almost 71 million gallons.

Since the 2002 drought, a culture of saving and moderation has been maintained thanks to the ongoing efforts of SNWA and LVVWD, and with the help of wide-scale outreach projects.

The educational Las Vegas Springs Preserve is a 180-acre attraction close to SNWA that features indigenous botanical gardens and museums that promote sustainable living, design and architecture with a focus on water. The center drew more than 295,000 guests last year thanks to daily field trips from local schools, as well as through hosting concerts, wine-tasting and this year’s Nevada primaries.

The results speak for themselves. Since 2002, southern Nevada’s population is up 46 percent, yet the region’s Colorado River consumption is down 25 percent. Water usage per capita has also dropped by 46 percent, according to the latest data in 2018. That year, Mack explains, Las Vegas used only 80 percent of its allocation from the Colorado River, while Bennet says that Lake Mead is estimated to be 36 feet higher today than it would have been were such conservation measures not introduced.

Bennet says that the agency alone couldn’t account for the results, and that Las Vegans were and still are doing a lot of intangible, unmeasurable things on their own as they rally to conserve water. The city has now turned to a 50-year sustainability plan that aims to bring per-capita net consumption down from 113 to 105 gallons per day by 2035. It plans to achieve this goal by investing in new conservation measures such as evaporative cooling, new development standards and the wide-scale distribution of smart meters that can track which homes are overusing water before sending out an automated email to inform the consumer.

Mission Not Yet Accomplished

By the numbers, Vegas is an example to any city struggling with water resources on how to reduce consumption without dramatically altering lifestyle and prohibiting growth. The measures taken to preserve water in the city are not site-specific or costly but have proven drastically effective all the same at making the region a more sustainable habitat while easing the pressures on the Colorado River.

But water and the means by which it can be conserved are limited, and so these efforts are not a free pass to unlimited growth.

Critics are right to point out that new development warps current averages. Las Vegas’s per capita numbers drop as developers expand the city under new regulations, giving the impression of sustainability but increasing consumption and overall usage when new industries and residents enter the valley — all requiring water.

So while Las Vegas’s response has been effective, there’s no room for rest. The Las Vegas Valley continues to expand by about 4,000 people per month, climate change rages on — and some residents refuse to change their habits.

A majority of people still don’t fully comply with the city’s water regulations. And the worst offenders? The more affluent residents are willing to pay the water fines if it means they get to maintain luscious gardens in the desert.

And though 113 GPCD, the current measurement of net consumption, marks a massive reduction on pre-drought figures of 211 GPCD, this is still much higher than other cities in the Southwest. While different communities have different ways of calculating gpcd, some environmentalists argue that only through strict rationing or growth limits can Las Vegas exist sustainably.

Daniel Gerrity, an assistant professor in environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is one such voice. “At some point, you have too many people in one area,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of growth that can happen in southern Nevada, but it’s not a bad thing that one day we shouldn’t grow anymore.”

Of course, many people — especially in government and big business — don’t like to talk about limiting growth, but conservation efforts are only effective as long as they stay ahead of the factors that are constantly pushing them. SNWA now serves a population of over 2.2 million, up from 1.5 million in 2002 and still growing every month.

Climate change is also pushing the city to its limits. In fact, Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the U.S., according to Climate Central. A 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that without global action, Las Vegas will experience 71 days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 — historically, they average just 18. The impacts of such climate change are twofold, as less water comes down the Colorado River, and residents use more water in the heat.

For now, the SNWA must play to the beat of Las Vegas’s drum, doing whatever it takes to reduce consumptive use and accommodate for a growing city. But conservation can’t keep up forever, and a city that remains at the mercy of the unpredictable Colorado River cannot risk stretching its limits again.

Las Vegas has shown that even in the hardest of climates, a densely populated city can flourish, and what the city has built and become since 1995 is a direct result of intensive conservation efforts.

Similar efforts have become a model for arid regions nationwide, especially in the Southwest, and Las Vegas hosts the annual Water Smart Innovations Conference to showcase new water-efficiency technology. But those following in Vegas’s example should be wary of pushing a city to its limits.

Las Vegas and southern Nevada have made great strides — and deserve credit for taking drastic action, credit that Bennett says is, in part, a result of the worst drought in the city’s history. “It’s in our culture — we need to be pushed to the edge of the cliff and then we will grip on.”

“But had it happened years later, it would’ve been so difficult to turn that ship around.”

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute and was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.