Las Vegas Sun

December 20, 2014

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A PROBLEMATIC THIRST

Even if Las Vegas pumps water from the Great Basin and dips deeper into Lake Mead, sooner or later strict water conservation will have to become part of everyday life in Nevada.

That's the conclusion of water experts who have looked at drought predictions on one hand and the region's water supply and how it gets used on the other.

"We have to take water efficiency and conservation to a whole new level," said Amy Vickers, a water conservation consultant and author of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation. "A lot of the public and public officials are still under the false notion that we've done all we can."

News reports focus on the fight over environmental effects of the proposed pipeline or the Southern Nevada Water Authority's race to plant a deeper straw into Lake Mead. What might be lost in the clamor is the possibility that neither the pipeline nor the third straw will be up and running before the region runs short, which could be as soon as 2010.

As water levels at the lake, already at an all-time low, keep receding and the Southwest further dries out, there is a small chance that in three to six years pumps will not have the capacity to deliver as much water as they do now on hot days.

And although the authority is working on measures to upgrade existing intake pumps to ensure the valley gets as much water as it does now, officials acknowledge that is a temporary fix. Even the longer -term solutions - a pipeline and a third straw not expected to be in place until 2013 - will not solve Southern Nevada's fresh water problem.

The Water Authority estimates the likelihood of lake levels dropping below the level of one of the two existing intakes at 5 percent by 2010 and 10 percent by 2011. But authority spokesman J.C. Davis said it can't and won't gamble with its ability to deliver water to Las Vegans.

"Our hope is that people will step up to reduce peak demand, and I think that is realistic," Davis said of the worst-case scenario. "Residents have done everything we've asked of them and then some."

Southern Nevada has cut its consumption under programs introduced by the Water Authority. But experts say that's nowhere near enough.

The authority sends about 400 million to 450 million gallons to the valley every day during the winter, but demand spikes to 900 million gallons per day in the summer.

Las Vegans use 256 gallons of water per capita daily. That includes commercial, industrial, governmental and public uses.

The millions of visitors to Las Vegas each year are the equivalent of 300,000 permanent residents, but they are not included in the residential count. They are counted as commercial use.

In Las Vegas, commercial and industrial properties, including resorts and golf courses, use 29.2 percent of the water.

By comparison, in Tucson , commercial and industrial properties use 23 percent of the water. In Albuquerque , about 27.5 percent of the water supply is used by commercial and industrial properties.

Average single-family residential use in Las Vegas is 165 gallons per day.

Vickers, the water conservation consultant, said water use could realistically be reduced to 40 gallons per person daily in Las Vegas by eliminating outdoor uses, such as lawns, that are especially wasteful in a desert, and using only high-efficiency appliances and fixtures indoors.

"How much water we need and how much we're demanding are not the same thing," Vickers said. "We have a distorted perception of what's happening with our water supply ... and we haven't been presented with the clear facts about how much fat is in our water demand.

"We have the technology today off the shelf at Home Depot or Lowe's to make it happen."

Part of the problem is that people have no idea what they're really using. One water utility's customers estimated in a survey they were using 15 gallons inside daily, Vickers said. The figure nationally is closer to 70 gallons.

"Our per capita water use is among the highest in the nation," said Launce Rake of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a group that opposes the authority's plan to pump water from the Great Basin. "We live in a desert, and we need to start accounting for that."

Although it's that desert environment that creates such high water use, Rake said if Las Vegans gave up on their addiction to grassy "eye-candy" and embraced a desert lifestyle and native plants, outdoor water use wouldn't be so out of control.

Rake and other critics of Water Authority policy say reducing indoor water use will also be a key to keeping overall use low should the authority lose the ability to pump 900 million gallons to the valley in the summer.

The authority now treats and returns to Lake Mead almost all indoor water used. It receives so-called "return flow credits" for any water that goes back into the lake.

The Water Authority is allowed to take 300,000 acre-feet, or more than 97 billion gallons, from the Colorado River through Lake Mead each year. It draws more than 100,000 acre-feet in return flow credits.

That 400,000 acre-feet combined with ground water and other resources gave the valley nearly 600,000 acre-feet last year, according to the authority. That means it has no incentive at present to reduce indoor water use.

"Return flow credits are no excuse for wasting water," said Susan Lynn of the Great Basin Water Network, another nonprofit environmental group that opposes the pipeline project.

Massive conservation efforts could be enough to make the project unnecessary, according to a report released this month by the network and Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit conservation group.

Davis and Doug Bennett, the authority's conservation manager, have said an aggressive campaign has brought use down from 300 gallons per capita to 256 during the past decade. But they think the sort of reduction proposed by the conservationists is unlikely. And they defend the pipeline project, saying it is necessary to have a diverse water supply in case of emergency.

Vickers said the kind of conservation called for by the two groups is possible, and, in fact, essential. But green lawns in the Mojave desert are not part of the equation.

"We all better wake up," Vickers said. "We're running out of time to implement the many water efficiency measures that are literally at our doorstep. I am concerned that there's going to be an emergency for at least one city or town in America."

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