There are fewer places I would equate sustainability with than Las Vegas. Images of the Bellagio Fountain shooting streams of water hundreds of feet into the air to the soundtrack of Sinatra’s “Luck be a Lady” does not really evoke thoughts of environmental restraint and consciousness.
They are not supposed to. As Las Vegas, as historian and booster Hal Rothman once noted, “It is a town of fun, of excess, where anything and everything is possible for sale.” It is a city whose industry is selling experience, be it at the blackjack table or in the Fashion Mall full of high-end shops.
But that town is for the tourists.
Drive just a few blocks off The Strip and you will find a city indistinguishable from most other western metropolises. Strip malls and sprawling suburbs are linked together by an ever-expanding network of highways clogged with traffic. It could be Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Albuquerque.
And like all southwestern cities, Las Vegas has long sought to buck the limits of its environment acting as if it had abundant water to fuel growth, which, truth be told, is Vegas’s real economic motor. Succeeding in becoming the fastest growing metro area in the United States. Today, over 2 million people call the Vegas Valley home, up 140,000 from just fifty years ago.
Las Vegas’s mercurial growth has stressed the area’s ground water and sparse 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Water to the very ragged edge. With an average rainfall of 3.5 inches per year, water, or the lack of it, defines Las Vegas more than The Strip.
And this is where Vegas can teach us something about sustainability.
Admittedly, Las Vegas does have its faults—its anemic civic engagement, libertarian sense of government, limited public transportation, economic reliance on growth, and lack of local sources of food are among a few of the challenges the city faces.
Yet, when it comes to water, Las Vegas is one of the first Western cities to realize the very real limitations it faces when it comes to providing enough water to satisfy a growing metropolis.
In 1991, the seven water agencies which serviced Clark County were locked in a war of attrition in which a use-it-or-lose system that forced some communities to literally pour water down the drain in order to ensure future allocations.
Such a system came to its inevitable conclusion when the region faced running out of water.
Water consumption has decreased by 36 billion (yes, that is with a B) gallons, despite the addition of 400,000 residents over the past decade. Developers seeking water for any new construction must first build the needed infrastructure on their own dime before receiving a single drop of water from the agency, saving millions of gallons of water in wasteful development. Perhaps the most successful policy has been the SNWA’s turf removal program, which paid home owners $1.50 for every square foot of grass they tore out of their yards. According to the SNWA’s web site, the turf removal program alone has saved enough water to fill more than 63,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
By thinking regionally, and embracing policies such as paying customers to remove grass (residential use remains the number one water use throughout the West), the agency sought to come to grips with the reality of its scarce water supply and has chosen to move beyond the myth of abundance that drove its unbridled growth for so many decades.
Simply put, the SNWA and Las Vegas metro area looked to consume less. A seemingly radical departure from the gospel of growth model the city had embraced throughout much of the late twentieth-century.
Such ideas are nothing new. The 1972 book The Limits of Growth warned that the then level of global consumption and population growth was unsustainable, and would result in “a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrialization.” A sentiment shared by Fritz Schumacher a year later in his Small is Beautiful. Schumacher argued that, “The idea of unlimited growth . . . needs to be seriously questioned.”
More recently, thinkers such as William McDonough and Michael Braungart have argued that older models that focus on regulating consumption to be “less bad” don’t necessarily work. Rather, systems need to be created that reward efficiency instead of punish inefficiency.
Precisely the sort of system in which the SNWA has embraced in meeting the challenges of increasing demand for an increasingly scarce water supply.
But even with Las Vegas’s embrace its limits, water remains an enormous challenge for the still growing metropolitan area.
The SNWA’s attempting an Owens Valley type water grab from the Snake Valley to the north has raised some significant ecological concerns, including the projected subsidence of the valley by up to thirty feet in places.
Likewise, the abject failure to promote green building codes by local governments remains a significant hurtle that few seem willing to tackle (or even acknowledge), as well as power (electricity), transportation (besides more six-lane residential streets), and generally livable communities.
Will Vegas face these and other issues in order to become environmentally sustainable? It is difficult to predict. If Vegas fails to take seriously the lessons learned from its sacristy of water and continues to behave as if abundance will last forever, then, like its neighbor Phoenix, it could face a very difficult future.
A lesson the rest of the West should heed.
by Michael W. Childers