Vegas betting on far-away water deals

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The Bellagio Hotel and Casino’s famed fountains spray Colorado River water into the dry Nevada air.

.titles {font-family: Myriad, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; font-style: normal; line-height: normal; font-weight: bold; color: #3399FF;}For the past six decades, Las Vegas has been the fastest growing city in America.
In 1950, 24,624 people lived in Vegas; today, 591,536 residents call it home.
And that’s just the incorporated city. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Area, with a population of less than 30,000 in 1950, has grown to 1.78 million.
Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, but until Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel-Casino in 1946 it had little economic effect. Gambling was confined to scruffy roadhouses which catered to a tough, working-class clientele.
The Flamingo changed everything. It created the modern Las Vegas, a city dedicated to pleasure, a new world of opportunity, excitement, and danger. There was nothing like it in America; and, except Monaco and Macao, nothing like it anywhere.
The city grew and there were no limits. The surrounding desert — arid, treeless and waterless — was itself a mirage. Beneath the desiccated ground lay aquifers that would nurture Las Vegas for decades, and when the city needed more, there was still water for the taking.

Editor’s Note

This is the third of a six-part series exploring the critical importance of the Colorado River to the growth, development, and continuing prosperity of Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The river’s waters are already over-allocated, and there is little prospect that average yearly flows will increase. There is a real possibility that what we now consider drought will become the norm and that the cities will enter into a new era of reduced water availability and enforced conservation.

How will the cities meet these new challenges? Who will gain, and who will lose? Will the historic model of growth-driven prosperity continue? Are businesses, politicians, water managers, developers and government officials creating sustainable blueprints for the future, or are they simply continuing with business as usual and hoping for the best?

The city simply claimed Nevada’s share of the Colorado River’s flow, and built two intakes to draw water from the vast reaches of Lake Mead.
Today, more than 90 percent of the city’s water comes from Lake Mead.
Other people’s water
Yet for Las Vegas, and for Nevada, Lake Mead is a shimmering mirage in the desert, a seemingly limitless expanse of water that belongs to others.
That’s because Nevada was only allocated 4 percent of the river’s annual flow under the 1922 Colorado River Compact which divided the river’s water among seven western states. Of the Lower Basin’s compact entitlement of 7.5 million acre-feet, Nevada can only claim 300,000 acre feet.
Las Vegas uses all of Nevada’s allocation. In the event of a severe drought in the Colorado River Basin, that amount could shrink — and, unless there’s a declared surplus in the river, it will never increase.
During the last seven years, Lake Mead’s water level has fallen nearly 100 feet. There appears to be little prospect that the fall will reverse, as a prolonged drought in the Colorado River Basin continues, and ever-increasing populations place greater demands upon existing supplies.
The ‘third straw’
Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said that the bleak outlook for the Colorado River poses no short-term threat to southern Nevada’s water supply.

Cities of the River
Week 1 Colorado River
Week 2 Colorado River Compact
This Week Las Vegas
Week 4 Phoenix
Week 5 Los Angeles
Week 6 Colorado Springs
Next week:
Arizona seemed to have cut a great deal with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, but changing times, demographics and climate could leave the state and the City of Phoenix sitting high and dry with junior water rights.

If necessary, the authority can draw more water from Lake Mead through a purchase agreement with Arizona. The authority also could tap additional water it has banked beneath the Las Vegas Valley.
But if the river fails to recover and Lake Mead continues to shrink, it could force the authority to accelerate work on a so-called “third straw,” which would draw water from the deepest part of the lake.
“We’ve got to get that third intake in as soon as we can,” Mulroy said.
The “third straw” is a $650 million project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2011.
But, as Western Water Assessment executive director Brad Udall pointed out this June during testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural resources, the project may ultimately be futile.
“The recent drought, which has featured extended low flows not seen in the 100-year gauged record, has resulted in the loss of 30 million acre-feet of water, the equivalent of two years of annual flow and half of the maximum total storage,” he said. “The two largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, are now approximately half full. Lake Mead is currently losing 1.4 million acre-feet per year, and contains only 10 years of water at this rate of loss, water that may not be there in the future under either climate variability or under climate change. According to reclamation modeling, even under average historical hydrology Lake Mead will never refill and Lake Powell will take decades to refill.”
SNWA’s Scott Huntley acknowledges that Udall’s facts are correct, but points out that the Secretary of the Interior may at any time, by declaring a “severe drought,” trigger mandatory conservation and demand reduction measures.
“Lake Mead is not going to dry up,” Huntley said. “That truly is hypothetical.”
But, as Huntley and other water managers throughout the West admit, a severe drought declaration would reduce supplies to all those who share the river.
Uncertain future
Huntley argues that Vegas will continue to grow and prosper — but that the future will be very different from the past.
“Look, we know that there will be 100 million more people in America in the next few decades — and they’re not all going to Alaska. They’re coming here, and to Colorado Springs and L.A. — all over the west. We’re water managers. Our job is to prepare for the growth as best we can.”
He said the question to be answered isn’t whether cities grow, but how they grow.
“The smartest growth is high-density urban living, in lofts and high-rise condos,” Huntley said. “You take people in a high-rise, it’s like that movie ‘Dune.’ We can recapture and re-use virtually every drop that they use.”
It has only been during the last five years that Las Vegas has been fiercely dedicated to conservation and, Huntley said, there are still enormous savings available.
“Over 60 percent of the water in the Las Vegas Valley is still used outdoors,” he said, “And that’s because water here, and in the west, has been cheap. That’s driven the way we live — on half-acre lots carpeted with bluegrass. But low-cost water is going away, and that will drive changes.”
Thus, a city that has long symbolized wasteful extravagance driven by heedless immorality now leads every other U.S. city in water conservation.
Driven by necessity, Las Vegas is working with other cities and states to develop a sustainable model for water use in the West.
“We can’t take the narrow views of the past, where we all fought and competed against each other,” Huntley said. “We need to work together, cooperate, and share. We’re all in the same situation; we all depend on the same river.”