I like Las Vegas. It’s a fun town. I’m not a gambler (you won’t find many editors at the high-roller tables), but I enjoy the food and overall spectacle of the city. And many others agree—Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S.
As much as I enjoy visiting, Las Vegas is a rather bright representation of the way we have come to take our most vital natural resource for granted. When people marvel at the spectacular fountain show at the Bellagio, how many of them ask how all that water got so far out in the desert? Deserts are…well…kind of dry, aren’t they?
It’s taken decades, but attitudes of conservation and efficiency finally are being applied to our use of fossil fuels. Whether it’s concern for climate change, political factors, or just economics, we’ve begun to look at oil, gas, and coal as things we need to consume at a lesser pace. Efficiency has become the name of the game. In the U.S., we have been fortunate to have a seemingly infinite supply of fresh water for as long as anyone can remember, so need hasn’t really forced us to adopt these kinds of attitudes toward H20. We just turn the faucet on and, voila. Water. As droughts in the Southeast and wildfires in the Southwest increase in severity, however, those attitudes soon may change.
Availability of clean, potable water already is a very serious issue in many parts of the world, and we won’t stay insulated from this problem forever. It’s not about bulk amounts…there are 326 million trillion gallons of water on the planet now. That’s the same amount as was here a million years ago and the same that will be here a million years from now. The trouble is in how it’s distributed within the water cycle. Most of it is locked up in glaciers or in the salty oceans. Only an estimated 2.5 percent of the planet’s water actually is drinkable, and that needs to be divvied up between every living thing on Earth.
Our water bubble in the U.S. may not be bursting yet, but it certainly is drying up. Revisiting Las Vegas, let’s take a look at Lake Mead. This impressive reservoir at the Hoover Dam is essential to life as we know it in the Southwest. Not only does it supply water and power to Las Vegas, it also irrigates crops and gives water to tens of millions of people in the entire region, including California.
As the growing population continuously waters its bright green lawns, builds lush golf courses, and even floods farmland to grow rice in a habitat barely suited to support cactus, the level of Lake Mead has dropped 100 feet (30 m) since 2000. While the demand for water grows greater and greater, the supply from the Colorado River, affected by retreating glaciers, grows weaker. A 2008 paper by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, San Diego, determined there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead could be bone dry by 2021.
Although those estimates are sobering, I recall my favorite line in the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.” After rescuing a man left for dead in the scorching desert, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence says, “nothing is written.”
There is an opportunity to head off water-supply concerns before they become water-supply emergencies. In the green-building industry, we already see a range of techniques and technology being used to conserve, reuse, and protect the cleanliness of water. From simple product solutions like low-flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets to more complex approaches involving rainwater capture, storm-water management, bioswales, and greywater irrigation, every drop counts.
These types of solutions need to become the norm, rather than the exception. When you examine the financial and energy costs associated with things like desalinization of ocean water or even the cleanup of polluted lakes and rivers, it’s clear that the best, most cost-effective thing we can do is to use the potable water we do have as efficiently as possible and do our best to keep it clean.
We use a stunning amount of clean, drinkable water to do things like flushing, spraying sidewalks, and putting on enormous fountain shows on the Las Vegas strip. Maybe it’s time to stop taking water for granted. By taking the kind of conservationist approach toward water that we are developing toward energy, we can come up with many innovative ways to use non-potable water where appropriate so we can save the good stuff for our drinking glasses. At the end of the day, oil and coal are things we can live without. Water is not.
Jim Schneider, LEED AP