Southwestern States Are Thirsty — Las Vegas, Nevada Not So Much

The recently-released report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) made headlines in all the major news outlets yesterday, with headlines such as “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises, Study Says (New York Times)” and “India’s Chennai rapid growth threatened by water shortages (Washington Post).” Why is this happening? Some of the crisis is the result of changing climate — less rain, hotter summers; some of it is the result of population growth, as the Washington Post’s headline emphasizes. But as the WRI’s own blog post on the Aqueduct report points out, much of it has to do with poor water management practices. A great deal of global water management has been reactive — growth comes first, and a response is tardy. Few places have put policies or laws in place that condition growth on finding enough water resources.

Sometimes this is inevitable — birth rates and migration rates are difficult to control with laws or policies. Yet in other cases, the existing laws or policies ignore the laws of physics. A recent post in the California WaterBlog points out that the legal system often uses inadequate models of groundwater management to decide who has the legal right to use water from a ground source, and how much they are allowed to use.

Take a look at WPI’s map of the United States’ water stress (shown above). You’ll note that while the US is overall at “low-medium,” many of the states in the West and Southwest are at “high” or “extremely high” levels of stress. Some of these high-stress states, like California, are notorious for their historically poor water management practices, and they are also areas of significant population growth. But while you are staring at that map, take a close look at Nevada, with “medium-high” water stress. Annual rainfall in Nevada averages only 9.5″ per year. Nevada’s population, at 3.1 million, has grown by over 14% since 2010. New Mexico, with “extremely high” water stress, has only 2.1 million people, and has grown by only 1.5% in the same time period while receiving an average of 14.6″ of rain per year. You might expect that Nevada would be in worse shape than New Mexico.

Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, Nevada

However, Nevada’s biggest city and its major user of water, Las Vegas, has also turned itself into a water innovator. As profiled in this article in Politico in 2016 (Las Vegas Is Betting It Can Become the Silicon Valley of Water), and in Lawrence Fishman’s book The Big Thirst, Las Vegas has found ways to turn the seemingly-profligate use of water by its major hotels, resorts, and golf courses into an opportunity to develop innovative ways to conserve, reuse, and manage its scarce resources. Nevada is by no means out of the woods, but it has moved far ahead of many low-rainfall states and countries, while still supporting very healthy population growth. How can other parts of our country, and the world, emulate Las Vegas’ success?

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