by Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life.
Mention of water usage in Las Vegas prompts most people to roll their eyes in exasperation. I saw this last week during a lecture on mega-droughts presented to an audience of environmentalists. Few realized that, rather than being the “ugly sister” of wise water consumption, Las Vegas – even with all casinos, glitz and fountains galore – is Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving a wand of solutions for arid communities.
This still-growing Nevada city is coping better than California with drought conditions, despite differences in the sources of their water supplies. Las Vegas draws from Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir dammed by Hoover Dam and known for the recreation it affords. California’s water users depend on aqueduct delivery of surface water (including the Colorado River) and groundwater reserves. But, nevertheless, their droughts elicit the same fears of the economic consequences of not having enough water.
Californians – and all those never thought of Las Vegas as being an environmental trendsetter – would do well to take heed of what’s happening in Las Vegas. The Economist Magazine (August 8, 2015, p 23-24) neatly summarized the ways southern Nevada has preemptively and quite successfully addressed water availability issues.
Las Vegas has banned front lawns. Now xeri-scaping with cactus, yucca plants and interesting desert rocks has become fashionable.
Las Vegas golf courses are now watered sparingly by “brown water.” New dramatic views of desert scenery offer intriguing contrasts beyond the greens.
Facing the reality of desert resources, Las Vegas now treats and recycles water used in homes, pools and fountains back to Lake Mead. Furthermore, if homeowners use more than their allotted amounts of water (per a tiered scale), they are charged at higher rates. Yet California’s arcane regulations discourage and in some places dis-allows scaled water-pricing incentives so as to reduce water consumption.
Perhaps Las Vegas is ahead of California because the Colorado River Basin is entering its 16th year of drought and California is only in its 5th year of record-breaking drought. Things aren’t always what we think. Solutions can come from surprising sources.
El Nino, despite its attendant floods and mudslides, may replenish California’s surface water resources; but geology teaches us it will be many years or decades before its groundwater resources will be restored. Additionally, history teaches us that El Nino is often followed by that drought-maker, La Nina. So – as fairy tales teach us – the frog may become a prince and the casino’s scullery maid may become stewardship’s “Belle of the Ball.” California, look towards Las Vegas!
For another comparison of states’ differing management of groundwater and Colorado River water, read this blog post by Meg Wilcox (of Ceres) for National Geographic (Sept 25, 2015) on Arizona’s tight water management of large-scale vegetable farms versus that of California. Wilcox quotes one Arizona farmer as saying: “We track water like we do financial statements.”