Like a gambler playing multiple slots simultaneously, Las Vegas continues to explore water options, some of them as bizarre and unlikely as the city itself.
There has been speculation that Las Vegas could negotiate a deal with Mexico to obtain rights to a portion of Mexico’s Colorado River entitlement. The city would build a massive desalination plant on the Gulf of California, at a cost of more than a billion dollars, which would replace the muddy, contaminated soup that currently flows into Mexico.
In return, Las Vegas could tap Lake Mead for Mexico’s Colorado River water.
It’s an expensive, far-fetched scheme, according to Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservancy.
“There’d be foreign policy considerations, nuclear proliferation issues, terrorism concerns, water law,” he said. “It just seems very difficult.”
But while not dismissing Kuhn’s caveats, Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority believes that the project is both realistic and practical.
“De-sal is definitely out there in the longer term,” he said. “And it wouldn’t just be a one-to-one exchange with Mexico. They’d get more water than they do currently.”
And if the project doesn’t come to fruition, Las Vegas has an emergency option: water exchanges with farms in central Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley.
Such exchanges would take the form of year-to-year leases with farmers, who would fallow their lands during the term of the lease.
According to Jennifer Pitt of Environmental Defense, there’s no shortage of water to work with in an emergency. She estimates that there is a pool of some 2.3 million acre-feet, enough for nearly 5 million homes, that cities could lease from farmers in the Lower Basin for less than $100 an acre-foot.
But there’s a catch. Populations are increasing in Arizona and California too, and those states would likely never allow agricultural water to leave their borders permanently — and probably not temporarily.
Pitt admits that while “there’s a pretty tremendous buffer in all that agricultural water use,” Arizona and California “see it as their reserve for future growth, (and) once you let it out of the state, you won’t get it back.”
Kuhn agrees. “All of the (Lower Basin) states view their agricultural water as their last reservoir,” he said.
Huntley doesn’t disagree. He said that political considerations make such transfers “highly improbable,” but he’s satisfied that Las Vegas will have enough water to support its historic rate of growth.
Even without water from a possible Virgin/Muddy project, Huntley believes that the Great Basin projects, coupled with a possible diversion from the Snake Valley in Idaho, will supply the city’s needs far into the future.
And, Huntley said, Las Vegas has emphasized water conservation in recent years to a degree that would astonish residents of Colorado Springs.
One hundred percent of the city’s wastewater is recycled and reused, compared with less than 12 percent in the Springs. Seventy percent of the city’s wastewater flow is recycled into the potable water system via Lake Mead.
Water Smart Landscapes rebates help property owners convert water-thirsty grass to xeriscape, a relatively lush yet water-efficient landscape. SNWA will pay property owners $2 per square foot for grass that is removed and replaced with xeriscape for the first 1,500 square feet, and $1 per square foot thereafter. A typical property owner with 5,000 square feet of turf grass would receive $6,500 — more than enough to pay for new landscaping.
Since the program’s inception, residents have removed more than 80 million square feet of bluegrass, for estimated savings of more than 4 billion gallons of water annually.
SNWA’s Water-Efficient Technologies program, which offers monetary incentives for businesses that convert to water-saving technologies, has saved more than 1 billion gallons since its inception in 2001.
WET offers incentives of up to $150,000 to commercial and multifamily property owners who install water-efficient devices. Examples include toilet retrofits, water-efficient showerheads, waterless urinals, onsite reuse systems, conversion of sports fields from grass to artificial surfaces and cooling tower improvements.
Thanks to these programs and mandatory watering restrictions, southern Nevada is continuing a trend of declining water use. The community’s consumptive water use dropped by about 18 billion gallons between 2002 and 2006, despite the addition of more than 330,000 residents and nearly 40 million annual visitors during that span.