Water Wars: Quenching Las Vegas' Thirst

It's a stunningly beautiful corner of the country: the Snake Valley, in White Pine County, Nev., straddling the Utah border.

Home to cattle ranches, alfalfa farms and endangered species, it's people who are few and far between along this desert landscape. That's because the Snake Valley is dry -- one of the driest parts of the driest state in the union, getting only about 8 inches of rainfall every year.

Dean Baker, who's been ranching in the valley for almost 50 years, says that's what makes the land unique. "Water in this country is always the determining factor," he says. "You could make this whole valley green, or put cities in it, if you had enough water. Water has always been the limiting factor, and it always will be. If there were more water here, there'd be more people."

The Inescapable Equation

People need water. It's an inescapable equation, and one that faces this western state. Las Vegas, that glimmering city rising out of the desert, is 250 miles south of Baker's ranch.

Once little more than a gambling outpost, Las Vegas has become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Its population is currently 1.8 million, and is projected to hit 3 million by 2020. Las Vegas is a city with a ferocious thirst that it's having a hard time slaking.

The major water supply for Las Vegas comes from the Colorado River, which has undergone a drought as a result of climate change, says Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"Climate change is here," Mulroy says. "We've been living it for the last eight years. The drought on the Colorado River was a rude wake-up call. Frankly, when 90 percent of your water comes from one river that is predicted to have massive water shortages, you'd be irresponsible not to develop water supplies that are independent of that river system in order to diversify."

The plan for diversification is controversial. Mulroy, the city's water czar for almost 20 years, has proposed a plan to build a $2 billion pipeline that would pump water out of White Pine County and send it down to feed the growing water needs of southern Nevada.

Keeping the Puzzle Together

"People are moving to Las Vegas for the jobs, for the economic opportunities, and because they like living here. These people are going to come -- we can't wall ourselves off," Mulroy argues.

"It is our job as the authority to make sure that there's an adequate water supply for them. And that is a delicate jigsaw puzzle," she says.

But Baker is adamant that his valley not become a piece of that puzzle. Baker argues that the amount of water in the ground is so limited that any additional pumping will wreak havoc on the area's environment, and economy.

Baker says there have already been problems caused by the amount of water used in the valley, which is a "drop in the bucket" compared with the amount that Mulroy hopes to use.

"Our experience says those springs will dry up and those meadows will go away," he says. "They're the home of livestock and wildlife and all kinds of things. I just so strongly believe it will not work without leaving an environmental problem that will live for years."

Threatening the Rural Lifestyle?

Mulroy says the project will be able to respond to the environment on the spot, by drilling additional wells if the original locations start to show signs of damage.

"We're already staying away from those environmentally sensitive areas in Spring Valley that could potentially have an impact, where there are sensitive springs or there are endangered species. I promise you, if you come back in 15 years, Spring Valley will be the most beautiful valley in the state of Nevada," she says.

"There will be eco-tourism there. There will be species brought back that don't exist there today, and there will be a valley that this state will be very, very proud of. We have the financial wherewithal and the commitment as an organization to do what is necessary and appropriate to protect both the rural lifestyle and the environment."

Baker and his four sons, who work the ranch with him, say it is that rural lifestyle that is being threatened by the overwhelming growth of the city to the south. Living on a ranch is "a great way and a great place to raise a family, and we're doing that," says Dave Baker. "But secondly, as ranchers, it's ingrained in you to take care of the livestock and the land. And to sell it and send the water south would not be good stewardship."

That's why, when the Southern Nevada Water Authority offered to buy the Bakers' ranch, the family sat down for a meeting, and all voted no.

Baker says the water authority never actually named a price, but other ranches in the county have gone for as much as $40 million, thanks to the value of their water rights. "I thought about it a long time, and thought, what would I do if I had a pile of money?"

Las Vegas' Hand in the Matter

But piles of money and the excess that accompanies that are what Las Vegas is all about. The dazzling fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel and the canals that snake through the lobby of the Venetian Hotel are as emblematic of the Strip as showgirls and slot machines.

Mulroy argues that while it might look like the casinos are awash in water, they're actually using it very effectively. "The entire Las Vegas Strip uses 3 percent of our water. With that, it generates over 70 percent of this state's gross product. If you ask me from a purely economic perspective, is that a waste of our resources? Is that a poor investment of our water resources?" she asks. "No, it's not. It is the largest employer, and it continues to use water as efficiently as is humanly possible."

Indeed, the basement of the Treasure Island casino is home to a water recycling plant that cleans 100,000 gallons of water from its rooms and restaurants every day and reuses it for outdoor landscaping.

Mulroy says most water waste in Las Vegas is happening because people are simply watering their lawns, a statistic they're trying to change. "We've removed 80 million square feet of turf in this community. That's enough to go half way around the world. We have banned new construction from putting in turf in the front yards."

Development in the Desert

Mulroy is also enthusiastic about new housing like Mountain's Edge, developed by John Ritter. His complex, which will eventually house 40,000 people, is designed with yards that feature golden barrel cactus and lava rocks, rather than freshly watered grass.

"The whole landscape here is drought-tolerant," explains Ritter. "That means it uses a fraction of the water that, for instance, turf would use in the desert, or subtropical plants … And it also thrives in the desert. It loves the heat."

Ritter says he's been surprised by how willing people are to adjust, even though many of his homebuyers are from other, wetter parts of the country where they might have prided themselves on their lush lawns.

"If you're going to develop in the desert, this is the way you should be developing. That's the first thing. The second thing is, and we underestimated this, what a great marketing tool [it] is," Ritter says. "And it's great, because you can do the right thing and be profitable."

But when it comes to solving Nevada's water problem, what the right thing is, is still very much up for debate. "There's got to be another solution," Baker says. "To make an environmental disaster out of this area is not the solution for Las Vegas. It'll be a pipeline that doesn't have enough water to justify the cost of it. It just ... isn't good for Las Vegas in the long run, either. It's a Band-Aid that'll be more costly in the end than seeking a better plan."

Mulroy admits that the pipeline wouldn't solve all Las Vegas' water needs, but it's a start. "It doesn't solve our drought problems to not do it. We have to do it. We have to do this project. This is not a matter of choice; it's a matter of necessity."

And, she says, fighting over it will only amplify the crisis. "To think that it's not possible because we won't work with one another, that we so like conflict, is ludicrous to me. What kind of a legacy is that to our children? … That's not the kind of legacy I'd like to leave behind."