The Economist gives Las Vegas points for water management

The notion of using “Las Vegas” and “sustainable” in the same sentence might give a lot of westerners the heebee jeebees, but there’s an interesting case to be made that its water management decisions over the last decade have pointed it in that direction. The Economist, in a look at Vegas water performance in its latest issue, doesn’t use the “s” word, but gives Vegas high marks for getting its water management house in order:

To the casual observer, with most of the West parched, Las Vegas’s water use seems astonishingly wasteful. Visitors flying in see acre on acre of suburban houses, a good proportion of them with pools. Those staying on the Strip find abundant fountains, enormous swimming pools and palm-lined boulevards, all in the middle of the desert. And yet beneath this mirage, quietly, Sin City has proven remarkably effective at managing its water, even as its population booms.

Talking to some folks today who are working on Colorado River water issues, I trotted out the Las Vegas example because the issue The Economist keyed in on is so interesting to me. Vegas looks crazy water wasteful. But the underlying numbers are actually kind of encouraging. Vegas water use and population data is another example of the “decoupling” I’ve been writing about – water use dropping even as population, economic growth, ag productivity, etc., rise. Here’s some of the data I’ve assembled in research for my book, which shows the water use curve bending down, significantly, after 2002, even as population has continued to grow:


Las Vegas Colorado River water use


Vegas and Candide

A colleague who’s been helping me think about these issues has been properly cautioning me against Panglossian optimism. (In fact, this colleague literally bade me read Candide so I would understand the fallacy of my “Panglossian optimism”. It’s a short book, and the university library a two minute walk from my office offered a choice of translations. I love my new academic posting.) I sometimes get sloppy with my “when people have less water, they use less water” argument, as if the sort of adaptive capacity that happened in Las Vegas is inevitable. This is not, in fact, the best of all possible worlds, as Candide so painfully discovered. But neither is the sort of pessimism, the we’re-completely-doomed rhetoric around Western water management that makes a lot of our current water policy rhetoric sound like Candide’s downer of a traveling companion Martin. (The scenes of Candide and Martin’s trip from South America back to Europe are like a hilarious pastiche of a journalist’s 2015 road trip through California’s Central Valley. “Why, then, was this world formed at all? asked Candide. To drive us mad, answered Martin.”)

These examples of adaptive capacity I’m trotting out, of “decoupling”, are a sign that solving our water problems is tractable, and that there are examples of how one might succeed. But it’s not inevitable. Lake Mead’s still kind of empty.

At the end of the book, Candide realizes that the important thing is to tend your garden.


  1. Note to self: Get job where I read “Candide” and get paid. Added note: Have place with “Candide” within easy walking distance.

    Noted, Mr. Fleck. Noted.

  2. John,

    doesn’t LV currently suck water from Lake Mead, use it and then return it? (i think so) they are using much more than 220K acre feet.

    in my readings i’ve also noticed that they do not want to reuse the water that they’ve returned to Lake Mead (one of the touted advantages of the Third Straw was to use it to get at deeper cooler and cleaner water).

    so again, i think the graph you are posting is somewhat misleading.

    still, i do agree that LV has come a long ways in water use policies, but i think there is still room for improvements and many of those improvements could be had by incorporating more wetlands into their processing system so that the water that is eventually returned to Lake Mead would be good quality for everyone.

  3. SB – You’re correct about Las Vegas return flow to Lake Mead, but from a water policy standpoint the numbers I’m using, which document “consumptive use”, are the relevant ones for counting water use by any city or farm district. It relates to an important distinction about what we mean by “use” in western water, the difference between “withdrawal” and “consumption”. Consumption is the more important measure, which is what I’m using in my graph – water permanently removed from the system.

    When farmers take water from a river and put it on their crops, some of that water usably flows back into the system (either aquifers or return flows to the river) so that it can be used again downstream. They properly get credit for that. Similarly, if a city takes water from a river and then dumps their sewage in the ocean, they should not get credit, because the entire amount is consumed. This happens a lot in Southern California, where sewage is discharged to the ocean. But if their sewage is returned to the system so that it can be used by others downstream (Albuquerque, Denver, and Las Vegas are examples of this) they should and do get credit for this full recycling of their sewage.

    The difference between “withdrawal” and “consumption” is a really important distinction in making water policy management decisions, a sometimes misunderstood but key distinction we talk about a lot in the water policy and management class I help teach at the university.

    Here’s a piece I wrote explaining the distinction in more detail:

    With respect to wetlands, Las Vegas is already doing that. There are a bunch of constructed wetlands in Las Vegas Wash, which carries their return flow to Lake Mead. They are gorgeous in addition to improving the water quality. (When I’m in Vegas, I try to sneak time away to go birdwatching there. Last time there saw egrets, great blue herons, osprey.)

  4. i understand your points and am familiar with them and the terminology. also agree there are different kinds of use, but to me the most common sense measurement would include the aspect that if you discharge water that you would not want to use again then it should not be considered recycled.

    if Lake Mead ever reaches dead pool stage then they will be forced to reuse water they are currently trying to avoid. i think the longer range water resource people would see this coming and start getting ready for it.

    after the Third Straw is done and operational i’ll be interested to see what other projects the LV water folks attempt. i sure hope it is improvements to water quality projects instead of diversions.

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