Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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A PROBLEMATIC THIRST

Turn off the tap, Las Vegas, and save the Great Basin.

Although simple, that is the nub of two nonprofit groups' argument in a report released last week about the potential environmental consequences of a project to bring ground water from northeast Nevada to Las Vegas.

According to the report by the Great Basin Water Network and Defenders of Wildlife, if Las Vegas were to use 40 percent less water, a multibillion-dollar Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline would be unnecessary.

Forty percent - or about the same amount used by all single-family homes. Not an insignificant amount of water.

And a level of conservation that the Water Authority , which is charged with delivering 320 million gallons of water to 1.25 million Las Vegans on an average day, says is impossible.

With nearly unfettered growth in the valley and no obvious political will to stop it, the likelihood that Las Vegas and the 6,000 people who move here each month will cut current water use by 40 percent in time to halt the proposed pipeline is slim.

Las Vegans use about 256 gallons of water per person daily. That number is reached by dividing the water consumption of businesses, resorts, golf courses, parks, residences and all other users by the 1.25 million residents.

If Las Vegans had the daily per capita consumption of Tucson, 156 gallons - about 120 million gallons less per day - the pipeline and its potential environmental costs would be avoidable, according to the report.

"If there's a water crisis you really should be doing everything you can to save water," said Noah Matson, Defenders of Wildlife's vice president for land conservation. "If you have the option of literally driving species extinct or replacing some toilets and saving water, which is the right thing to do?"

But reducing use by 120 million gallons is no simple feat. All the single-family homes in the valley use about 137 million gallons of water on an average day. To meet the report's conservation goal is roughly equivalent to saving the water used on an average day by all multifamily homes, commercial and industrial properties, and golf courses in the Las Vegas Valley .

Is it fair to compare Las Vegas to Tucson?

The Water Authority doesn't think it is. For one, Tucson gets three times the rainfall each year that Las Vegas does.

Then there is the eight-year drought that's robbed 8 trillion gallons of water from Lakes Mead and Powell reservoirs. If it continues to be this severe through 2010, none of the seven Western states that relies on Colorado River water would get all it needs.

"With the primary water supply in peril, no amount of conservation is an adequate substitute for the security of an independent water supply," said J.C. Davis, a Water Authority spokesman.

That's not to say the authority doesn't take conservation seriously, officials say. Since it enacted drought measures in 2003, it has reduced water use in the valley from 272 gallons per person daily to 264. It has plans to reduce that to 250 gallons by 2010 and to 245 by 2035.

Conservationists say that's not enough.

"In the face of climate change, conservation is going to be incredibly important. All reports indicate that the Colorado River Basin and the states that rely on it are going to see drier climates in the future," said Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi, a water policy analyst with the environmental group Western Resource Advocates.

"The most important thing is that conservation needs to be planned for just like any other water supply development project, because it can't be implemented overnight."

Although the Water Authority has programs to conserve water, Matson said it could be offering better price incentives to residents .

"We're not talking about average indoor water use. We don't want to price people out of taking a shower, flushing their toilet and washing their clothes," Matson said. "But anything above the basic needs, when you're living in a desert, is essentially a luxury."

In other words, vast expanses of emerald-green lawn watered lovingly into existence in the driest state in the nation. An estimated 15,000 acres of lawn in the valley could be converted to desert landscape, according to the Water Authority.

Launce Rake, a member of a citizen committee advising the Water Authority on rate changes and a conservationist with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, thinks incentives as well deterrents are a good idea. Profligate users should be punished with a rate structure that is costly to heavy users and rewards those who conserve with lower prices, said Rake, an opponent of the pipeline. He said he would like to see use dip well below 200 gallons per person daily.

But almost as important as pricing is a serious conversation about growth in the valley, Rake said.

"We can support a population greater than we have now if we achieve greater degrees of conservation," Rake said. "What we can't do, however, is continue to grow at a nation-leading rate forever. Sooner or later, the negative impacts of accelerated development are going to come to roost, and not just for Las Vegas but for the entire Southwest."

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