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April 20, 2014

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Las Vegas can’t handle another era of unimpeded growth, study says

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Tiffany Brown

Scot Rutledge of the Nevada Conservation League speaks last week about the Sonoran Institute’s study on Southern Nevada sustainability.

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Pat Mulroy

Beyond the Sun

Environmentalists and Southern Nevada’s water chief Pat Mulroy finally agree on at least one point.

A report by the Sonoran Institute, an Arizona-based nonprofit think tank, says that if the Las Vegas Valley’s population grows to capacity using the Bureau of Land Management acreage designated for development, even the most stringent water conservation measures won’t be enough to ensure that everyone has enough H2O.

Filling in the remaining 27,000 acres using today’s zoning and planning rules would allow about a half-million more people to call the valley home.

The one big problem: There’s not enough water for all of them.

The Sonoran Institute says that would remain true even if the valley adopted measures such as banning residential lawns and requiring low-flow fixtures indoors.

In other words, as Mulroy is fond of saying: We can’t conserve our way out of our water problem.

But Mulroy and the institute report, which was funded by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Toiyabe chapter of the Sierra Club, part ways on what the answer is.

For more than two decades, Mulroy has pushed for a pipeline that would divert up to 170,000 acre-feet of water from eastern Nevada to support growth in Lincoln County and the Las Vegas Valley.

The report echoes what environmentalists have been arguing for years, that instead of spending billions on a pipeline that could drain rural basins, kill off wildlife and ruin the rural ranching and tourism economy, the valley should reduce the amount of water it needs in the future by limiting growth.

And that’s really at the heart of this report. The valley could grow again. It could eventually fill the vacant homes and build a heck of a lot more, and it could construct a 300-mile pipeline to suck water out of eastern Nevada to support that.

But will that make a better Las Vegas?

The unimpeded growth of the past two decades has seriously harmed Las Vegas economically and ecologically, the report argues. And unless government takes action now, during the lull, the planning mistakes of the past 20 years could create an even more unsustainable future.

The status quo — fast-paced development and reliance on two industries, hospitality and construction — made the area economically vulnerable. The recessionary result has been devastating.

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Chris Giunchigliani

The silver lining of the Great Recession is that it gives the community time to re-evaluate what it wants to be, says Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who supports the report’s findings.

“I don’t think there’s much resistance to at least having the conversation about what’s the next step for the recovery of the valley,” she says. “Now we should be stepping back and asking, ‘Is that what we want? Is it a product that’s going to attract people here and keep people here?’ Now we can ask, ‘What do we want the valley to look like?’ We didn’t have time before because of the growth boom.”

But to get away from Las Vegas’ old pattern, the region will need to cultivate new, more stable industries such as health care and renewable energy, both of which the report says could grow if the community invested heavily in education and focused on using available land and empty office parks to build these industries.

The current planning system isn’t set up to do this, the report says. At the report’s core is a recommendation to create an overarching planning body with the authority and mission of making the valley more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. It would have to take into account, on any proposed master plan or project in the valley: energy, water, air pollution, transportation, economic diversification and the environment.

In short, it would be faced with accepting something Las Vegas has defied since its inception — the city is in the desert. The report says existing coalitions and commissions don’t have the authority or inclination to do this.

But Giunchigliani thinks the main change the report says is needed to save Las Vegas is possible under the current system. She plans to take the report to the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition.

She said the report’s recommendation to consolidate planning under one body might eventually be achieved, but not all at once. The commissioner said change will have to come in a piecemeal fashion.

“That, I think, is the best way to approach this,” Giunchigliani said. “I think there’s an opportunity here. I don’t think we’ll see the type of resistance here that you would have seen when everyone was depending on growth.”

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