Lake Mead’s problem: It’s about the lower basin structural water deficit, not the Bellagio Fountain

tl;dr Vegas is an easy target, but Lake Mead’s problems involve far more than Sin City’s profligacy.

Bellagio Fountain, Las Vegas NV

Bellagio Fountain, Las Vegas NV

Longer version: As Lake Mead drops toward a record low some time next month, there’s a temptation to draw a dotted line to the Bellagio Fountain, 30 miles to the west, and point a finger of blame. It’s not the fountain itself, but rather the water excess of Las Vegas that it symbolizes, that draws the easy comparison, as the energetic and extremely widely read Eric Holthaus did in a recent Slate post that tripped straight from Mead’s record lows to the gaudy fountain on the strip:

If it wasn’t used to water lawns or wow tourists at the Bellagio, it could be used for drinking.

And this is true, but it misses the crucial point embedded deep within the arithmetic underlying Lower Colorado River Basin’s water balance sheet. The question of whether Las Vegas’s water use is unnecessarily profligate is an important one, but it’s of only marginal importance when talking about the risk the Southern Nevada city faces.

Las Vegas could do a dramatically better job of conserving water – shut down the fountains, get rid of the lawns – and still see Lake Mead drop uselessly from beneath its feet. Here’s a graph of how we use Lower Colorado River Basin water that may help explain this:

The blue bars are 2013 consumptive use by the nine largest water users in the lower basin. The orange bar that I snuck in there for comparison is what we’ve been lately calling the “structural deficit” – the excess water used in the lower basin above and beyond the full annual normal year allocation. Southern Nevada – essentially the greater Las Vegas metro area – consumed 223,563 acre feet of water. (source – pdf) Las Vegas could cut its Colorado River water use to zero – blow up all those casinos and leave Vegas to desert dust – and Lake Mead’s structural deficit would still be close to a million acre feet a year.

Look again at the big bars in the chart above. Have you heard of the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District? It uses more water than Vegas. Coachella? In addition to some sort of hipster music festival every year, they also use water to farm the desert – more water than Vegas uses to harvest tourist dollars. You’ve of course heard of the Imperial Irrigation District. It uses ten times as much water as Vegas.

I’m not here to defend Las Vegas’s water use. Could they do more to conserve? Absolutely. There’s a serious conversation to be had about that city’s approach to life in the desert. They will have to be to be part of the solution to Lake Mead’s problems. But until the broad societal conversation embraces all the water users, rather than wagging an accusing finger at the Bellagio Fountain, we’re not going to get anywhere in dealing with this problem.

a note on the data: The numbers in the graph are total consumptive water use, as reported in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2013 Colorado River Accounting and Water Use Report for Arizona, California, and Nevada (pdf). The numbers represent all large water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin, those whose water is drawn from Lake Mead. These users account for 95 percent of the U.S. Lower Colorado River Basin consumption. The rest is scattered among a bunch of much smaller users, which I was too lazy to graph, plus it would have been too wide. A number of the users shown, including Las Vegas and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, withdraw more water than shown from the river, but then put some back. The numbers in the bar chart represent the net of those two numbers, what in the jargon is called “consumptive use”. For several, including Yuma County ag, I’ve lumped more than one water user into a single bar.


  1. John, good point. Do you happen to know how Las Vegas’s per capita water consumption compares to, say, the national average?

    Some CBS News video clip I saw recently, from last year, said that Las Vegas recycles 90% of its water. Do you believe that?

  2. David – Good questions, thanks. As it happens I’m right in the middle of a deep dive into Vegas water use stats for my book research.

    The second question first….

    Las Vegas recycles a lot, by returning its treated wastewater to Lake Mead where it can be reused. Vegas pumped a total of 479,900 acre feet of water last year, ~90 percent of that from Lake Mead and the rest from groundwater. Vegas then returned 195,992 acre feet – essentially all indoor water is recycled in this manner. So 41 percent is recycled in that manner. The rest, the “consumptive use”, is outdoor garden water that is lost to evapotranspiration.

    So if you look at total community water use, all homes and businesses, it’s 214 gallons per capita per day. That’s quite high. Albuquerque, for example, is down to 135 gpcd when measured in the same way. If you look at *consumptive use*, though, which I think is a better measure, Vegas is down at 124 gpcd. Albuquerque, by that measure, is at ~70 gpcd (all our sewage goes back into the river for reuse by farms, downstream cities, and ecosystem).

    It’s this “total use” v. “consumptive use” distinction that makes your first question a lot harder to answer, because methodologies for calculating water use almost always look at total use. If you’re a city that dumps its sewage in the ocean, or puts it on golf courses instead of back into a river or lake or in some other way recycling it, the comparisons become maddening.

    The regional differences also are profound, because of the different outdoor water use in different climates, and where ag use fits into your community’s water use picture. I’ve thrown up my hands at coming up with a straightforward answer, but Michael Cohen at the Pacific Institute is braver than I, and published this a few years back, which shows *total* use (not consumptive use) for municipalities in the Colorado River Basin. It’s the best apples-to-apples data we’ve got:

    Arizona: 246 gpcd
    California: 195
    Colorado: 167
    Nevada: 242
    New Mexico: 163
    Utah: 214
    Wyoming: 217

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