Desert wastefulness, or a perfect mirage?
By Marcelle Dibrell
Amidst the West Coast’s historic drought, there is one city, never known for moderation, that refuses to turn off the tap, and thousands of pool service professionals are arriving to bear witness.
Las Vegas is hosting the International Pool Spa Patio Expo.
Las Vegas is in the middle of one of the driest places in the world, but the way the city flaunts its water, you sure wouldn’t know it.
Residents of the West Coast, and the pool and spa industry in particular, have become keenly aware of the push to conserve water.
Water conservation and usage restrictions have been threatening the jobs of the West Coast’s industry professionals. Yet within this setting of shortage and need, Las Vegas appears to have made little concession to the crisis.
This is a city that gets 4 inches of rain per year.
How are they pulling this off?
Visitors flying in take in the sight of miles of suburban houses, a good many of them with pools.
The Strip displays hundreds of spectacular water features and fountains.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the Bellagio fountain, a 22-million gallon, 8.5-acre man-made lake that rockets water 500 feet into the air to the tune of God Bless America.
Meanwhile, they’re literally burning water at the Mirage, where an iconic volcano erupts to spew fire and water every 30 minutes.
Then let’s not forget all the golf courses. Golf is, oddly enough, one of Las Vegas’ big attractions. The driest city in the U.S. has over 60 golf courses.
Tourists have long marveled at the city’s excesses. But in yet another drought year, the pool industry’s water conscious builders and service professionals may want scratch their heads at the city’s audacity.
To the casual observer, Las Vegas’ water use seems like the height of recklessness.
But Vegas is a city that understands a smart wager, and betting on endless water in a desert is not smart.
So in a city of illusions it should come as no surprise that all is not as it appears.
In fact, according to some sources, Las Vegas has become a role model for water sustainability. By necessity, they have learned how to sustain a population of 2 million and growing.
Vegas’ water management skills began with an odd peculiarity of history. Under the 1922 “Law of the River,” Las Vegas was allocated just 2 percent of Colorado River’s lower basin water. In 1922, no one expected that millions of people would rush to settle in the middle of the desert. That 2 percent explains why Las Vegas is so good at managing its water.
Because while Vegas’ allocation is small, its dependence on that allocation is huge. In fact, Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, which is supplied by the Colorado River. The other 10 percent comes from well water.
To accommodate the fact of this limited resource, Las Vegas recycles its water. In actuality, the Southern Nevada Water Authority can take as much water as they want from Lake Mead as long as enough is returned to the reservoir to keep the net use at or below their 2 percent allotment.
In Vegas, just about every drop of water that is used indoors, not only along the Strip, but across the valley, is funneled to treatment facilities that break down contaminants, before being hit with ultraviolet light for disinfection. Then it is returned to Lake Mead, from whence it came.
Las Vegas’ water conservation measures were recently highlighted by Dan Person in an article appearing in Outside Magazine. There, he unpacked what he learned from Bronson Mack, who oversees water resources at Southern Nevada Water Authority.
According to Mack, if every room of every hotel on the strip were full of guests, and every one of them turned on every faucet and shower in every room, while simultaneously flushing every toilet again and again, the water would not be wasted.
Mack says that if Vegas had only indoor water use, there would be a limitless supply.
Though it seems counterintuitive, Vegas’ casinos use a very small percentage, only 7.6 percent of all of Southern Nevada’s water.
What about Bellagio’s 8-acre lake? The Bellagio’s fountain is not supplied by Lake Mead. It’s source is a freshwater well that was drilled decades earlier to irrigate a golf course that previously existed on the site. The fountain uses less water than the golf course did.
In reality, most of Las Vegas’ water, 60 percent, goes to the city’s residents, who use the majority of their allotment outdoors.
But since the drought of 1999, the water authority has cracked down on outdoor water use as well, and it was that year that Vegas got really serious about how to manage water.
That was the year that the water district began paying people to remove their lawns.
In 2004, the Las Vegas Valley Water district began installing computerized leak detection systems within their plumbing. Over 8,000 units have been installed so far, and have saved 290 million gallons of water.
Today, new houses simply cannot have sod in their front yards; backyards must have 50 percent or less grass, and if a “water cop” discovers water running off of a lawn, there’s an $80 fine.
Meanwhile, the swimming pool industry is safe in Las Vegas. Public and private pools are not subject to conservation measures.
The water district understands that when pool water is managed efficiently, swimming pools use less water than grass.
But residential water is tightly metered on a four-tiered scale. Unlike California, where suppliers can charge only delivery costs, in Nevada, if you want extra water, you pay for it.
And what about all those golf courses?
Many people believe that most of the community’s water is used by golf courses and resorts. Contrary to public opinion, however, only 6.8 percent of the community’s water is used by golf courses.
This is a reduction from earlier years and was achieved by turf removal from out-of-play areas, water budgeting, and the use of non-drinkable brown water.
All in all, Las Vegas has taken so many steps to decrease water consumption that from 2000 to 2010, though the City’s population grew by over a million people, they currently use 33 percent less water per person.
Few would guess that Sin City, the Entertainment Capital of the World, famous for gambling, drinking and strip clubs, would be touted a role model when it comes to sustainability.
It’s ironic that Las Vegas is a role model for anything, really, but like anyone addicted to excess, Vegas seems to know that you’ve got to work hard if you want to play hard.
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