Water Shortage Looms for Vegas: City's growth could deplete supplies

Originally published May 22, 2006 in MeetingNews

When driving into Las Vegas for the first time, one wonders how this extravagant meetings mecca morphed from a desert into something more like Times Square or Miami.

And indeed, many scientists believe the city can't sustain itself indefinitely with the amount of water available.

"I have a feeling Las Vegas' water demands are so incredible and increasing so much that it's not a sustainable situation," said Charles Goldman, a limnology professor at the University of California at Davis.

Las Vegas' average rainfall is only four inches annually. Lake Mead, the man-made reservoir behind Hoover Dam which supplies most of the city's water, has been in a drought condition over the past few years. The drought has sparked a number of media reports of impending water doom.

According to Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman J.C. Davis, hotels account for only 3 percent of the city's net water consumption, or intake of water that can't be treated and reused.

However, hotels could feel the impact of water shortages and, since they are so greatly responsible for — and the beneficiaries of — the city's growth, they should be part of a solution, according to Goldman.

"They really need to look into the long-term science of sustainability for their operations," Goldman said. "And they need a lot of good civil engineering [to increase the efficiency of water use]. It's a complex, multidimensional problem that requires a really holistic approach."

Between now and 2010, about 36,000 new hotel rooms will be added to the city's already massive supply of 133,000.

That will not make much difference in the city's water supply, because the vast majority of hotels' water use is indoors. That water, as opposed to water used outdoors that evaporates in the dry, warm desert air, can be treated and reused.

"Indoor water use, which is predominately the kind seen at hotels and restaurants, has very little impact on community water supply," said Davis.

However, arid Las Vegas requires sophisticated water treatment systems, which consume fossil fuels, and as the cost of oil continues to soar, so will the price of treatment, according to Goldman.

"Treatment is extremely expensive and energy demanding, and it creates a lot of air pollution," he said.

When a developer applies to build a hotel, the city imposes rigorous water-conservation standards, said a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokesperson. Some embrace the water issues and go beyond city standards.

"Our company for a while now has been committed to using the best available technologies. As they become available, we research, test and implement them to achieve high-efficiency water use," said Jaime Cruz, director of energy and environmental services for MGM Mirage, which has 10 properties on the Strip.

The company uses high-efficiency toilets, shower heads, dishwashers and other appliances, Cruz said. And although some of its properties are known for their elaborate outdoor water displays, the displays and lanscaping make up less than 3 percent of the properties' square footage, according to Cruz.

Landscapers use a sophisticated computer system that maximizes water efficiency based on current weather conditions. The company even has a recycling facility that reclaims water used in Treasure Island guestrooms for the outdoor attractions there and at the Mirage.

"We believe conservation of water and energy is the right thing to do," Cruz said. "For sure the local authorities have made it known throughout the last few years that the drought conditions called for a higher awareness."

Some say the water issue is more a question of distribution than supply.

"Water is unlikely to ever be a major problem for Las Vegas as long as the city's success continues," said University of Nevada Las Vegas professor Hal Rothman. "Water flows uphill to money in the American West."

Water can be siphoned from rural communities to help run the economic engine that is Las Vegas. "There is plenty of water in northern Nevada that can be piped down," said Patti Shock, chair of the UNLV tourism and convention administration department. "The northern Nevadans don't much like that idea, but I believe it will eventually happen."

Still, Jeff van Ee, an environmental activist and a member of the Southern Nevada Planning Authority, said in a 2005 BBC web article that he fears that 15-20 years from now, the city's current supplies will be overtaxed and alternate solutions will need to be found.