When writing about how Las Vegas is taking a huge risk with its water supply, it’s impossible to avoid clichéd gambling metaphors. So I’m going to get them all out of my system right now.
Here goes: They’re doubling down when they should be holding. They’re putting all their chips on aqua and praying that their luck holds. They’ve had way too much to drink, and it’s clouding their ability to calculate the odds and make smart bets.
Clark County, Nevada, which comprises the city of Las Vegas and a number of newer suburbs, is home to more than two million people. Though the recession hit this area hard, signs would seem to indicate that Vegas is back, baby. After taking a major dip in 2011—when the one-two punch of the recession and the housing bust caused nearly 70,000 people to flee—Clark County began to rebound the very next year. Between 2012 and 2013, it saw its population grow by almost 100,000. If projections are accurate, greater Las Vegas will be home to 3.32 million by 2042—an increase that would constitute one of the largest population booms in the country.
But casting an ominous shadow over this sunny forecast is a stone-cold hydrological reality: The Las Vegas metropolitan area draws 90 percent of its water supply from Lake Mead, and Lake Mead is shrinking.
The giant Colorado River–fed reservoir sits about 25 miles southeast of the city. Two weeks ago, its water level hit its lowest point since construction of the Hoover Dam created the lake in the 1930s. Currently, the much-written-about “bathtub ring” marking Mead’s water level at full capacity is visible in rock formations 130 feet above its glassine surface. And the lake’s new record low of 1,080 feet above sea level is sure to be broken within months: By September, experts predict, the level will have dropped another six to seven feet.
Exactly how quickly Lake Mead is drying up is a matter of debate. But if the willingness of climate scientists, civil engineers, and regional water managers to share their worst-case scenarios with the media is any kind of barometer, then it’s probably time to start freaking out a little. The mildest of these scenarios assumes that water levels will continue to decrease at a discouraging but predictable rate, necessitating the activation of one or more newly dug intake pipes hundreds of feet below the lake’s surface. The scariest is the “dead pool” scenario (technical scientific name: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome Time), in which Lake Mead drops down to 895 feet above sea level. At that point, water would simply cease to flow through the turbines of the Hoover Dam—adding massive power outages to massive H2O shortages and paralyzing the desert southwest.
To its credit, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which manages the flow of water from Lake Mead and other sources into the Las Vegas Valley, has been on the case for quite some time now. Through an interconnected system of water-conservation measures—including rebate programs, innovative wastewater-treatment technologies, customer usage audits, xeriscaping incentives, lawn-sprinkler restrictions, and even recycling partnerships with all those fountain-mad casinos along the Strip—the SNWA managed to cut its consumption of Colorado River water by 32 billion gallons between 2002 and 2014.
As the SNWA points out on its website, it achieved all that despite the fact that it added half a million customers during the same period. And in the juxtaposition of those two statistics, we get a glimpse of Las Vegas as a worrisomely divided soul: the born-again conservationist who preaches responsible resource management by day, then cuts loose at the craps table of urban sprawl by night. (Sorry—guess I have a few more of those metaphors in me after all.)
Before the housing bust knocked the wind out of it, Vegas routinely topped list after list of America’s fastest-growing cities. Between 2000 and 2009, it boasted a 36.5 percent growth rate. And as is the case with so many other western cities, most of that growth took place in the razed and subdivided exurbs. Massive cul-de-sac developments like this one (captured, stunningly, by the photographer Michael Light) lured those seeking new, affordable homes on treelined streets.
But by 2011, the bottom had fallen out of the local housing market. The abrupt halt in sprawling development seemed like a golden opportunity for Las Vegas to slow down a bit and rethink some of its more questionable pro-growth policies in light of its unquestionable water exigencies. The image of all those thousands of newly built homes just sitting there—empty and, in most cases, foreclosed upon—should have been sobering to the developers, local officials, and business boosters who were emerging groggily from their dreams of perpetual growth. (Had they thought to splash some cold water on their faces, they might have driven to Lake Mead and walked to the end of the pier at Boulder Harbor—where they would have found this.)
But four years later, many of the news stories coming out of Las Vegas fall into one of two categories: Growth and development are finally inching back up again, and Lake Mead isn’t. Earlier this week, on the same day the New York Times ran an article under the headline “Drought’s Extremes Tallied at Record-Low Lake Mead,” a Vegas business site reported on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s $19 million sale of nearly 360 acres, scattered throughout the valley’s outskirts, to commercial homebuilders—yet another sign, the writer noted, of how development “is picking up steam this year.” And then there’s Alana Semuels’ recent eye-opening piece in The Atlantic about the post-housing-bust resurgence of sprawl across the country, which opens in Vegas. Semuels describes how long-delayed work has recently resumed on “master-planned communities such as the 1,700-acre Skye Canyon, the 2,700-acre Park Highlands, the 1,900-acre Inspirada, and 555 acres of luxury living in an area called Summerlin”—even as one land-use expert interviewed questions whether cities can “continue to afford to invest in them,” given the “real infrastructure demands.”
By themselves, these projects will soon be adding more than 32,000 new homes to a part of the country where “the supply of water...is meeting present needs, but continued population growth threatens to overwhelm existing resources,” according to a 2010 report by the Sonoran Institute, a think tank dedicated to western resource-management issues. And while it may indeed be true that subdivision-style housing is more water-efficient today than it has ever been before, it doesn’t change the fact that large-scale, low-density development always places an added strain on public services and public resources.
This—to put it mildly—is not the time to be putting an added strain on Lake Mead. As the authors of the Sonoran Institute report warn, when you combine the sprawling growth favored by Las Vegas with climate change and protracted drought, you end up with a situation that “exacerbates the risk of a serious water shortage in the area.”
According to Gamblers Anonymous, which aims to help individuals overcome their addictions to betting and wagering in all its forms, the first and most notable characteristic of a compulsive gambler is “the inability and unwillingness to accept reality.” By taking real and impressive steps to conserve water, Las Vegas has shown that it understands it has a problem. But if to wants to live a long and healthy life, it needs to come to terms with reality by breaking old cycles—and steering clear of old temptations.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.