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Can Sin City survive without the gift of free water?
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Three-quarters of a century later, a super-sized Las Vegas relies on Lake Mead, behind the dam, for close to 90 percent of its water—and it still gets that water for next to nothing. Cost-based pricing explains the low water rates charged to residents of the city. Las Vegas may sit in the middle of a desert, but both its operating and its capital costs are low. Unlike San Diego and other cities, it has not borne the expense of building desalination plants and other expensive facilities. And unlike San Francisco, which gets most of its water from a reservoir in distant mountains, it draws its water from a nearby source. The lower cost of delivery is chiefly responsible for the fact that water service is only about half as expensive in Las Vegas (at $33 per month for a family of four) as it is in San Francisco (at $58 a month).
In addition to cheap water, Las Vegas derives another major benefit from the dam. It gets cut-rate electricity from the federal government—supplied at less than half the wholesale price. That, in turn, greatly reduces the cost of recycling and transporting water. More importantly, in the larger scheme of things, cheap electricity allows Las Vegas to outshine Paris as a city of lights. Seen from outer space—with outdoor lighting displays featuring replicas of the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, and other monuments from around the globe—Las Vegas is the brightest city on the planet.
All of which is to say that Las Vegas led a charmed life in rising from a small railroad town into a sprawling metropolis.
Coping with Too Much Water—and Too Little
FOR MORE THAN two decades, it did not even need water from Lake Mead, as it was able to get by on its own plentiful supply of ground water, with springs that flowed to the surface—some with the force of geysers. By the late 1950s, however, this source had been pumped almost dry—causing the springs to stop flowing and ground to cave in beneath Nellis Air Force Base. The water wells were capped and the casinos and other users hooked up to newly formed system taking water from Lake Mead in 1962.
Over the next three decades, Las Vegas enjoyed prodigious growth without coming anywhere close to exhausting its annual allotment of water from Lake Mead. From 139,000 people in 1960, Las Vegas grew to 305,000 in 1970, 528,000 in 1980, and 853,000 in 1990—and still it had water to spare—water to waste—from an allotment that could easily accommodate a city of 1.5 million people accustomed to using all the water they wanted without having to worry about the cost.
During this halcyon time, no one—not even the casinos—wasted more water than the local water companies themselves. Seven companies shared in the annual allotment from the lake under a formula that encouraged each company to make full use of its share—sometimes dumping any surplus water into storm sewers.
However, as Las Vegas approached the 1 million mark in population, the LVVWD began to worry about future water shortages. In October 1989, it filed applications in Carson City for unclaimed groundwater in northeastern Nevada, with an estimated pull of as much as 800,000 acre-feet of water, or just about double the allocation from Lake Mead.
There was fierce opposition from ranchers, farmers, environmental groups, and others in Nevada and Utah. The controversy continues to this day, with tempers rising on both sides. Opponents say that pumping the aquifer beneath the Great Basin would turn a sparse but beautiful desert landscape into a giant dust bowl. They say it would kill plants and wildlife and recreate the disaster of California’s Owens Valley—the subject of Chinatown, the movie starring Jack Nicholson.
As the city’s longtime water czar—head of both SNWA and LVVWD—Pat Mulroy dismisses these fears as unfounded, even though one of the fiercest critics includes a water expert who formerly served as a top consultant to the water authority in studying the impact of pumping the aquifer.
While insisting that the water authority has no intention of “mining” the aquifer—or of reducing the net amount of water in storage through withdrawals exceeding the naturally occurring deposits from snowmelt and other forces—Mulroy counters with the argument that her plan is a do-or-die proposition for Nevada and its largest city: “There is no option. It’s going to be built. For this state to survive, it has to be built.”
As it happens, Mulroy and the water authority put the plan on hold for most of the 1990s. But that was during a period of years in which the closely watched water level at Lake Mead was rising—reaching an all-time high in 1998. But that year also marked the beginning of a 12-year drought in the Southwest, which caused the lake to fall below 50 percent of capacity and set alarm bells ringing inside the water authority. In 2008 it began to build a “third straw” (in reality, a massive underground tunnel) to assure its ability to suck water from the lake even as the water level continued to drop.
No one would accuse Mulroy of being less than aggressive in seeking to ration water through a variety of restrictions and special incentives. In 2009, the water police investigated more than 6,000 cases of wasteful water use and issued nearly $100,000 in fines. Employing the carrot as well as the stick, the water authority pays homeowners up to $7,500 to rip out green lawns. Appearing before the U.S. Congress in 2004, Mulroy took credit for eliminating more than 33 million square feet of ornamental turf through SNWA’s “cash for grass” program—enough to bring about a temporary reduction in total water consumption in Las Vegas even as the city continued to experience rapid growth. But as she was at pains to explain to the lawmakers in Washington, this was no more than stopgap. She appeared before Congress to press the case for the pipeline.
Now, SNWA and its supporters are demanding immediate action on the proposed pipeline, while opposition groups have become increasingly energized as well. To go ahead with its plan, the water authority has two big hurdles to clear in coming months. It must obtain a right-of-way from the Bureau of Land Management to build the pipeline. It must also secure water rights from the Nevada State Engineer—which involves the technically complex issue of whether or not the water authority would be “mining” the aquifer (mining groundwater is illegal in Nevada).
If the project does proceed, it will probably mean the end of cheap water in Las Vegas. This time the city—or the water authority—will have to reach into its own pocket. SNWA admits that a near-doubling in water rates may be needed to finance the $7.4 billion project.
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