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What if...Our Water Runs Out

AMANDA RICHTER | Irrigation

Take a look at a sampling of headlines from around the nation: “Tennessee Town Runs out of Water,” “Atlanta Drought: Three Months of Water Left,” “Are We Running out of Water?” “Las Vegas Headed for Dry Future.”

The images that accompany these headlines are even grimmer. Desiccated shorelines. Half-full lakes. Turf scorched brown and gold. And if you want grimmer still, just take a look at the statistics. The thousands of green industry workers out of jobs and business. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of water trucked or piped into water-starved areas, and the millions of dollars spent searching for solutions.

Officials are faced with the tough task of resource allocation. When that resource is water, how do you decide whose thirst gets slaked? Drinking water is certainly a priority. So is water for irrigating agricultural crops. But what about water for landscaping? Domestic use? Construction? Other industrial use? And just as importantly, what do you do to make sure that what little water you have left is used wisely? These are only some of the questions that water purveyors, cities and municipalities must resolve as areas across the country suffer from the tight grip of drought.

Back in October, an unprecedented situation forced Atlanta, Georgia, officials to declare that they would run out of drinking water in a matter of weeks. Like Las Vegas's Lake Mead, Atlanta's Lake Lanier has dropped dramatically. Since then, rainfall has alleviated the situation to some degree, but no one's releasing their breath just yet.

The unthinkable actually did happen in Orme, Tennessee, a small town of less than 150 people. Orme ran out of water at about the same time as Atlanta water officials went into crisis mode. The town restricted its total water usage to just a few hours per day. Three hours to cook, wash clothes, take showers, fill up water jugs. With the town's former sources of water dry, water had to be trucked in from nearby New Hope, Alabama. This was until a pipeline could be built that would connect Orme with Bridgeport, Alabama's water supply.

For the hardest-hit areas of south Florida and North Carolina, stringent water restrictions remain in effect. These range from one-day-per-week watering to outright bans on irrigation. Look at any drought monitor and you'll see that hardly any areas of the U.S. aren't besieged by water woes.

However, one city has adopted a tough approach to its situation. That city is Las Vegas, Nevada. The buzz around Sin City is not Bette Midler's show at Caesar's Palace. It's about how only a few decades of rampant growth have turned this former railroad town into an explosion of lights, buildings, money and people. And it has drained Lake Mead, the city's source of 90% of its water, to its lowest level since 1965. As of February 2008, the lake was just a little above half capacity.

A new study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography warns that there is a 50% chance that the lake could become unusable as early as 2021. Just imagine how that would impact the more than 20 million people served by Lake Mead. The odds of them being without water are better than your odds of winning big at a Vegas casino.

Today, it's hard to look out over the bathtub ring that circles Lake Mead and imagine a time when this crisis hasn't been building. But back in 1928, when water was divvied up among the areas served by the Colorado River Basin, Arizona and California took most of the share. These were agriculture-rich areas with a lot of clout. Nevada was less populated and less politically powerful, so it settled for a manageable 4%. Until recently, Nevada's Colorado River allotment was sufficient

But by this time, Las Vegas had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. As mega-resorts such as the Mirage and the Bellagio took over and changed the landscape of The Strip, more and more people flocked to the area. With the increase in residents came an increase in irrigation systems and golf courses. Suddenly, Nevada's long-standing allocation was no longer sufficient.

Continued growth has only exacerbated the problem, and the explosion shows no sign of peaking. Las Vegas's population is expected to almost double in the next twelve years, reaching three million by 2020. Moreover, the number of annual visitors will top 40 million.

Interestingly enough, in 1989 water consumption averaged 350 gallons per person per day. That's double New York's average consumption, and New York receives 10 times the amount of moisture per year. With such high numbers, Las Vegas' four inches of rain per year are not nearly enough.

As the millennium approached, officials began to realize that it might be too late to reverse the trend that had been building. Unless water usage was sharply tailored, Las Vegas was predicted to run out of water by 2006.

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Las Vegas' approach to water conservation

But there were plenty of people determined not to let that happen. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) was formed specifically to address the region's needs through collaboration between seven agencies. However, a water shortage encompasses a variety of complex causes and solutions. Making sure that there's enough water to go around isn't as simple as just limiting the number of people who need it. Simply ending Clark County's growth would put billions of state tax dollars at stake. Jobs would be cut, too, and cash flow would be affected all over Nevada.

Rather than severing the growth, the water district has focused on ways to deal with it. Patricia Mulroy, SNWA's general manager, turned to the city's economic epicenter: the gaming industry. She asked industry members to lead a water conservation movement. Although the industry's penchant for water features is on display nearly everywhere you look, the entire strip uses only 3% of the city's water. In contrast, it accounts for more than 70% of the state's gross product. It made sense to call on the economic drivers for help with a situation that could devastate the local economy.

Mulroy's request did not fall on deaf ears. In the early 1990s, developer Steve Wynn built a water recycling plant underneath the Mirage Volcano and the Treasure Island Pirate Lagoon. Daily, the plant processes 100,000 gallons of water that is reused at the attraction and for landscaping. The MGM Mirage Company also installed drip irrigation at its 11 hotels and took water conservation inside, installing low-flow bathroom fixtures.

To motivate homeowners and golf course owners, SNWA initiated a tiered pricing structure to encourage conservation and issued watering restrictions. City-employed "water cops" issue about 150 tickets per day for violations. Similarly, golf courses were put on water budgets based on drought conditions and the irrigated acreage.

Of course it's also important to reward as well as punish, and the SNWA offers rebates for water-conscious customers. The Water Smart Landscapes Rebate Program encourages homeowners to replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping, or Xeriscaping. SNWA estimates that every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart trees, shrubs and flowers saves an average of 55 gallons of water per year. Rebates are also available for smart irrigation controllers.

Moreover, new construction has been banned from installing turf in front yards. Backyards can contain only 50% turf. Scott Huntley, public information manager for the SNWA, explains the reason for these restrictions. When Las Vegas began to expand, many houses were built on what he calls "the L.A. model, with big yards covered in grass. We recapture and reuse every drop of water used indoors, but water used for outdoor irrigation can't be reclaimed."

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"The local green industry has been extremely responsive," says Huntley. "They've really been the critical lynchpin." The SNWA maintains a list of Water Smart contractors who meet certain criteria determined by the district. This includes undergoing water-efficiency training. As a benefit of joining the program, the focus on drip irrigation and Xeriscaping draws business. Huntley explains, "When we cut homeowners checks for replacing their grass, much of the rebate often goes to paying the contractor."

The SNWA spends about $5 million annually to inform residents about the benefits of conservation. "The combined approach of education and enforcement has begun to sink into the community's psyche," says Huntley. By spring of 2007, more than 80 million square feet of turf had been removed. He added, "It's enough to go halfway across the earth, and there's still more to do." Nonetheless, the headway that has been made is impressive. In 2007, Southern Nevadans consumed 15 billion gallons fewer water than in 2002. This was done despite the addition of some 400,000 residents.

But is it enough?

Rebates and conservation only scratch the surface of the efforts being made to keep Las Vegas from going dry. More important than the water shortage is the city's stubborn determination to survive. It has taken an aggressive approach to seeking out new water sources and finding creative ways to use Colorado River water. "Finding new sources of water is critical. Especially water that is hydrologically separate from the Colorado River," says Huntley. "Several studies have pointed out our need for diversification of our water portfolio. However, this is one of the most challenging things to do in the water and utilities business."

Last December, the seven states that pull water from the Colorado River went to work at protecting their most valuable resource. Typically, this has been a "divisive" issue, according to Huntley. But this time the states came together and signed shared-shortage agreements to allow Nevada, Arizona and California to use Lake Mead as a savings account for unused Colorado River water. The states can also bank "intentionally created surplus" water from fallowed farmland, although this water is subject to stricter withdrawal guidelines.

Stored water could temporarily add as much as 2.1 million acre-feet to the failing lake. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons of water, or enough to serve up a family or four for a year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will be able to store 1.5 million acre-feet, while Nevada and Arizona can each bank 300,000 acre-feet.

The idea of storing water is nothing new around these parts. Since 1987, the North Las Vegas water agency and Las Vegas Valley Water District (members of the SNWA) have been pumping treated Colorado River water into the Las Vegas Valley's primary groundwater aquifer. Together, the agencies have banked more than 290,000 acre-feet in the local groundwater basin for emergency or future use. Water banking arrangements have also been made with Arizona and California.

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In addition to laying out banking provisions, the agreements detail the increasing shortages each state must take as Lake Mead falls. If the lake drops 35' from its present level, the first round of shortages will go into effect. Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico would be required to reduce their combined water use by 400,000 acre-feet per year. Should the lake continue to drop, the shared shortages would grow to 500,000 and then 600,000. As the lake approaches the 1,025' mark, more negotiations will be required. These will hopefully keep Hoover Dam generating electricity and prevent the water from becoming too toxic to drink.

Another provision of the agreement would allow SNWA to tap groundwater in Coyote Springs basin and surface waters from the Virgin and Muddy Rivers. That water would be available even during a shortage. It would add about 40,000 acre-feet per year. Similarly, other groundwater and surface water projects are in development to further reduce dependence on the Colorado River.

While the agreement is an important step, it is only one of several. The city's return-flow credits allow more water to be drawn from Lake Mead. Once water is pumped from the lake, it is returned in the form of effluent (treated) water through a channel called the Las Vegas Wash.

Even more return-flow credits could be gained if the "pipeline project" that has been in development for several years is approved. The controversial $2 billion-$3.5 billion project involves piping in billions of gallons of water from the rural valleys of Central Nevada about 300 miles away. Currently, the plan is under review by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Other attempts to diversify Vegas's water holdings include talk of building desalination plants on the coast of Mexico.

Then there's another plan in the works called the "third straw." Currently two water intakes supply Las Vegas with its water. But if Lake Mead drops past a certain point, a third intake could continue to provide water from the deepest part of the lake. It's estimated to cost $650 million and is scheduled to be completed in 2011. Clearly, Las Vegas is willing to do-and shell out-pretty much whatever it takes to beat the water shortages.

From conservation to shared shortage agreements to pipelines, this proactive approach to heading off a total dry up will hopefully add up. Other cities, municipalities and regions could take a cue from Las Vegas and adopt similar approaches. It's a battle against time. But it's the plan of action that counts. And with any luck, in a city that runs on luck, the water in Vegas will stay in Vegas.

 
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