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United States

Conserving Vegas' most precious resource

The western USA has been drought-stricken for over a decade. Saving water is now a priority in the megacity of Las Vegas, but private consumers are having a hard time doing so.

Christie Vanover is worried. The park ranger works at Lake Mead National Park in the Western United States. Lake Mead is the largest artificial lake in the US, formed by the Hoover dam on the Colorado River. Its water level has decreased by 30 meters over the last thirteen years. "So we’ve had to extend our launch ramps at our nine developed areas. Our marinas are constantly having to move in and out - which costs money - so that they can keep up with the shore line," she said. Not every one can afford this and one of the harbors recently had to close down.

The reason for Lake Mead's low tide is a water shortage in the Colorado River. The river is suffering from a combination of drier seasons, less snowfall in the Rocky Mountains and higher temperatures. At the same time, increasingly thirsty farmers and megacities in the seven states fed by the Colorado mean there is barely enough water to meet demands. The non-governmental organization "American Rivers" has recently named the river the most endangered waterway in America.

Laundry shop saves water

The Colorado supplies some 40 million people with water. Two million of these live in Las Vegas, an artificial oasis in North America's driest desert, the state of Nevada. Enormous hotels with thousands of rooms, lush fountains, spacious pools and rich green golf courses - nothing in this gambling city would indicate that water is a precious and rare possession. However, the problem is no secret behind the scenes.

Eric Brady (photo: Christina Bergman)

Brady's new washing machines only use around 1.5 liters instead of the 9.5 gulped up by the old ones

"We are just in the final phases of a $13 million (9.8 million euros) renovation to implement this more water-efficient equipment. It uses about 0.4 gallons (1.5 liters) of water per pound (0.45 kilos) of laundry," said Eric Brady, president of Brady Linen, Las Vegas' largest laundry shop according to its own estimations. The company thus saves eight million liters per day with its more than 450 tons of laundry.

Hotels not the biggest water drains

Brady Linen also washes towels for the hotel group MGM Resorts. Energy conservation and ecological awareness are part of MGM's company concept, according to Cindy Ortega, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of MGM Resorts International. This is why MGM developed new showers for the 10,000 rooms in its new facility, City Center. They waste less water per minute, below 7.5 liters, but the guest does not even feel the difference, when in fact the water consumption is less than at home, Ortega said.

Thanks to water saving measures such as intelligent air conditioners, which automatically stop cooling down the hotel room as soon as the customer leaves, around 190 million liters of water can be saved per year, according to MGM. If nothing else, for companies saving water can also mean saving money.

In fact, hotels are not the biggest water drains in Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that hotels are only responsible for 7.7 percent of overall consumption. According to Scott Rutledge from the Nevada Conservation League, an advocate for sustainable politics and legislation, hotels mostly use their water indoors, which means most of that water goes into the drain and gets recycled and is not considered consumptive. However, he thinks it is "crazy" that there are around 40 golf courses in the metropolitan area of Las Vegas, in the middle of the desert.

Golf course (photo: Christina Bergman)

The Tournament Players Club at Summerlin Golf Course is one of the 40 golf courses in and around Las Vegas

Controversial golf courses

Dale Hahn, the maintenance director at a nearby golf course, admitted that there are too many of them in the desert city. But, he said: "We are more than just a water user, we are a wildlife habitat and a great recreation area for our golfers." Hahn is responsible for maintaining the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin Golf Course. Its rich green and the idyllic lakes are artificially sluiced, which according to Hahn, is more frugal. Additionally, only a small portion of the course - 20 percent - gets sprinkled with potable water. The rest receives so-called "grey water," waste water from sinks and showers, which is processed and supplied by the waterworks in a small facility right next to the golf course. In 2012, golf courses accounted for 6.5 percent of overall water consumption.

That's why Doug Bennett from the city waterworks is neither against golf courses nor anti-hotels. After all, they bring in tourists, income and jobs to the city.

"What is a waste though is using a highly thirsty plant for nothing more than ornamental purposes," he said. Hence, he and his agency have an eye on the front lawns of single-family homes and apartment buildings. In 2012, these private households made up the lion's share of water consumption in Las Vegas, at 60 percent. Those who transform their lawns into a water-smart garden will thus get a bit of cash - a little more than 12 euros ($16) per square meter.

Luscious lawns

Amy Zeldenrust in her garden (photo: Christina Bergman)

Amy Zeldenrust needs a lot less water for her Mediterranean garden than most of her neighbors

Amy Zeldenrust is one of the people who made use of this offer. She moved from Ohio to Las Vegas in 2003 and immediately replaced the lawn around her house. "I have almond trees, pear trees, fig trees, lemons and limes - it is a very Mediterranean pallet with a lot of succulence and agaves, aloe, and in between plants from South Africa and from the dessert," she said. Her garden, for which she even got a prize in 2009, smells seductive. She does have to water the garden as well, but much less than before.

Zeldenrust can only shake her head at the sad-looking magnolia across from her house and the willow tree in one of her neighbor's gardens. Many residents have moved to Las Vegas from the cooler East and plant what they are familiar with from back home, even if they are very water-intensive plants. However, she also notices that more and more neighbors are now following her example.

Environmentalists demand more measures

Environmentalists, such as Rob Mrovka from the Center for Biological Diversity, think the movement is going too slowly. He demands stricter water-saving regulations. According to him, the Southern Nevada water authority has the goal of decreasing per capita consumption of water to 753 liters per day by 2030. "But even that is not low enough," he said. Other cities, such as Tucson or Phoenix, manage to make due with much less, he added. What upsets him the most is people watering their lawn and letting the water flow into the gutter.

And then there is the "Las Vegas Lake" in Henderson, a 320-acre artificial lake east of the city, which also gets supplied with water from the Colorado River. Mrovka's judgment: "Las Vegas is improving, but it is not doing a great job at water conservation."

Hoover Damm (photo: Christina Bergman)

The water shortage of the Colorado River leads to dropping water levels in Lake Mead

The pressure to save water could rise with a fall in the Colorado River. As its levels drop, the volume of Lake Mead shrinks as well. The reservoir's current depth is 337 meters, but if it falls below 328 meters, the US Bureau of Reclamation could declare a state of emergency and cut-off water supply for the US states Nevada and Arizona and even the country Mexico, which is also supplied by the Colorado River. They would then receive less water than they are entitled to - and less than they are using now. According to the current prognosis, this could happen as soon as 2016. As Las Vegas draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, it could soon end up looking much more like the desert city it really is.

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