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Water Conservation, Brought to You by Las Vegas

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In an interview on NPR earlier this year, Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, called Vegas “one of the most water-smart [cities] in the world,” concluding that water officials “have no choice.”

That’s because the city’s economy is based on attracting people to come to the middle of the desert, be it for a weekend getaway or to live out their golden years. There will always be economic pressure to push the limits with water, which means there will always be a tangible incentive to stretch the water as far as possible.

Water officials have leveraged technological innovations to help them track water and mitigate waste. For example, in 2004, the Las Vegas Valley Water District installed computerized monitors to detect leaks in its self-contained water system. (The district has installed more than 8,000 of these units to date.) This system has since detected more than 1,600 underground leaks, which has saved 290 million gallons of water—enough water to supply 1,800 Vegas homes for a year.

It has been even more aggressive with outdoor water use, which accounts for 70 percent of all water use in Vegas. Among its innovations:

  • Since 1999, the water district has been paying people to pull up sod from their yards. (The current rate is $1.50 per square foot; in 2014, the city paid out $3 million to homeowners.)
  • New houses cannot have sod in their front yards.
  • Backyards must be 50 percent or less grass.
  • During the summer, you can’t water your law between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., the times of day when the sun is most liable to evaporate water before it soaks into the ground.
  • There’s an $80 fine if a water technician—known colloquially as a “water cop”—finds water trickling off your lawn and into a storm drain. (The Las Vegas Sun reported in 2013 that water cops had investigated 830 various water violations that year alone.)

The efforts are paying off. Though total water use for the city rose only slightly between 2000 and 2010—by about 1.5 percent—Vegas added more than a million people. That works out to a 33 percent per person drop in water use. Vegas water officials hope to go even lower, with a per capita water-use goal of 199 gallons per person per day by 2035. That’s 20 fewer gallons a day than is used today.

California could learn a lot from Vegas. It sounds like they're doing a lot right. 

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