Las Vegas’s painful choice

Las VegasVia TreeHugger, a great magazine story on how out-of-control Las Vegas’s water use is. The premise is that Nevada is rapidly approaching the point where it’ll have no water to spare at all, even with imports, and the state will be forced to choose between filling the pools outside Las Vegas’s casinos and irrigating the state’s farmland. (Update: Yes, really, farmland. Mostly ranching of cattle and sheep, some dairying, and alfalfa to feed the livestock.) Some argue it might actually make more sense to supply the money machine that is Nevada’s biggest city instead of farmers on marginal land.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to be a serious option is getting the people of Las Vegas to stop wasting the stuff:

[Southern Nevada Water Authority director Patricia] Mulroy says raising water rates and pushing aggressive conservation is politically impossible in Vegas, partly due to the ingrained culture of waste. “We’ve had the luxury to let water run down the streets, and quite frankly, it’s created a mindset that it’s something you take for granted,” she says. Case in point: 70 percent of Las Vegas’s water is still being used for outdoor watering.

Fulkerson says it would help if Vegas officials were genuinely interested in promoting water conservation measures or tying new construction to available water supplies. But he’s skeptical that this will happen anytime soon. “Slowing down growth in Las Vegas is damn near impossible,” he says. “You could no more do it than stop an oncoming train.”

Vegas is a whole city premised on getting something for nothing, even if the people who live there year-round and service the casino and entertainment industry have to work pretty hard to get comparatively little. It promises the opposite of eco-tourism: a temporary stay in a fairyland of self-indulgence and extreme plenty. What is water in such a place?

James Howard Kunstler devotes one of the best chapters of his book of urban case studies, The City in Mind, to Las Vegas:

[T]he experience of actually being on this gigantic motorway lined by buildings of such monstrous scale — or, at some stretches, vacant lots that appear to be the size of Rhode Island — is not apt to gratify many human beings with normal neurological equipment. In fact, if ever a setting was designed to ravage the central nervous system and induce acute agoraphobia, the Strip is it.

What good sense can’t do, perhaps the basic limitations of aquifers and even the mightly Colorado River will. You might be able to make money out of nothing, but not water.

Photo credit: Flickr/wili_hybrid

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