Las Vegas is deceptive, when one visits the area water is visible everywhere—in fountains, swimming pools, and on golf courses. Las Vegas literally means “the meadows” in Spanish, and was named for the artesian springs that created an oasis in the middle of the desert. Now, however, due to the over-consumption of the artesian springs, Las Vegas is an artificial oasis created by technology and engineers for tourists. These technologies bring water to a place where no water exists. Since Las Vegas only receives about four inches of rain a year, the city obtains most of its water from the Colorado River; yet that water is rapidly dwindling and some predict by the year 2060, the river will be short by 3.2 million acre-feet a year. The water has fallen so much in Lake Mead that the Southern Nevada Water Authority (“SNWA”) is currently inserting another pipe into Lake Mead due to its falling water levels. The reality of the Colorado River being overdrawn has forced SNWA to begin to look elsewhere for its water.
The SNWA has attempted to come up with alternative solutions for Las Vegas and the surrounding areas to conserve water and become sustainable. These solutions include the groundwater project (which involves taking water from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada’s White Pine and Lincoln counties), turf removal plans, and recycling water.
Currently, Las Vegas obtains about 10 percent of its water supply from groundwater, and the rest comes from the Colorado River. In order to obtain the groundwater from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada, in 1989, the Las Vegas Water District first submitted the groundwater plan to the State Engineer. The SNWA was formed in 1991 and it continued to pursue groundwater in eastern Nevada. In 2012, the State Engineer granted SNWA the water rights in Spring, Cave, Delamar, and Dry Lake valleys. SNWA submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) in order to build a pipeline to transport the water to Las Vegas and the surrounding areas. The BLM has given the SNWA permission to build 263 miles of pipeline to divert the water from the valleys to Southern Nevada, and in May 2013, BLM granted rights-of-way across federal land for the Groundwater Development Project. The SNWA hopes that this project will reduce Nevada’s reliance on the Colorado River.
Although the groundwater project could help the Las Vegas area with their water troubles in the future, there is much opposition to it. First, many in agriculture do not want to sacrifice their water and land for Las Vegas’ groundwater project. The SNWA would be pumping the water out of rural Nevada and diverting the water from farms to the city. While the SNWA has already bought much of the agricultural land that would be affected by the project for inflated prices, many farmers refuse to sell their land. As the farmers sell their land and move out of the eastern counties, many small businesses who rely on their patronage will also go out of business and be forced to move.
Opposition also comes from environmentalists who are worried that if the SNWA begins to withdraw water, there will be less water for native desert plants. According to environmentalists, if the water table is drawn down too far, the plants will begin to die, which could result in a dust bowl. Finally, many species of wildlife will also be adversely affected if the water is diverted from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas because their habitats will be permanently altered due to lowering water levels.
Turf Removal and Water Recycling
Contrary to what many people believe, it is the residents of Las Vegas who waste the most water and not the resorts. The resorts use only about three percent of diverted water from the Colorado River. The remainder of the water is used by residents to water their lawns. In order to combat and lessen the outdoor use of water, Las Vegas and surrounding areas have used “cash for turf removal” as a way to conserve water in Nevada. The turf-removal program is very important because the water can evaporate easily in the hot desert and it cannot be collected and recycled for later use. The turf-removal program encourages residents of Las Vegas to remove their lawns and replace them with plants that are native to the desert, which require less water than the grass that is normally planted outside of homes. The replacement of lawn for native desert plants is called xeriscaping. Las Vegas has also been trying to conserve water by capturing water that has been used by residences and resorts and recycling it. This water can be used to irrigate golf courses or it could be treated and sent back into the Colorado River.
Las Vegas has a major influence on the way that Nevada treats its water. The culture of over-consumption provides most of the economic support for Nevada and Las Vegas provides most of the jobs for Nevada. Although Las Vegas is trying to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River, it is doing it at a cost to rural areas and farmers and ranchers. However, taking water from other areas of the United States is not enough to make Las Vegas a sustainable city and the SNWA must find other solutions in order to fulfill the city’s need for water.