One gallon forward, two gallons back

The national attention on Las Vegas’ water situation, which I noted in January, continues — now with added polarity.

On March 5, “Here & Now,” the live talk program produced by Boston’s NPR news station, presented a show called From Toilet to Tap: City Officials Say Get Used to Drinking Recycled Water. The discussion featured Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water and apparent fan of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Here’s one excerpt from Fishman’s conversation with program host Robin Young:

Las Vegas is one of the most water-smart cities in the country and even one of the most water smart in the world. … They've put in a whole series of things that has really changed the water culture of the Las Vegas metro area. Let's just put the statistic on the table first. Twenty years ago, Las Vegas used 329 gallons of water a day a person. That's more than the typical household in the U.S. uses a day. They are down 20 years later to 219 gallons a day a person. They've saved 110 gallons per person per day.

Contrast that with Eric Holthaus’s recent article for Slate, “The Thirsty West: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas.” The deck for that story — “Even Sin City’s attempts to conserve water are wasteful” — pretty much says it all. But, in addition, Holthaus specifically calls out Las Vegans’ per-capita water usage:

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The driest city in America still uses more water per capita than just about any other city in the country. … For perspective, that goal of 199 gallons per person per day by 2035 is twice California’s current statewide average water consumption. One of the best in the West, San Francisco, uses less than a quarter of the water per person as Vegas—just 49 gallons per person per day.

He says that all the attention given to efficiency improvements in Las Vegas is like “a one-ton man patting himself on the back for losing 400 pounds. Great news, but there’s still a long way to go.”

It seems impossible that both Fishman and Holthaus could be right, and yet, from my perspective as a resident of one of the oldest neighborhoods in the heart of the nation’s driest city, they are. Look no further than my street for proof.

Although we’re not required to (our house was built long before the early-2000s restrictions on lawns), my significant other and I let our front-yard grass die off when we moved in and replaced it with xeriscaping, which is watered with drip irrigation. Permaculture gardens fill two-thirds of our backyard, and the small patch of grass we keep for our dogs is Bermuda, which requires little water. To help offset the water we use in the garden, we take such measures as “bucket and chuck it” — hand-collecting and -carrying dishwater to irrigate gardens. We are perfect examples of Fishman’s argument.

Next door to us lives evidence of Holthaus’s view. When a moving van pulled up there a few years ago, the foreclosed-upon home had been empty so long that all the landscaping except the trees was dead. The lush green lawn turned to dust and the bank (we assume) sent yard workers in to tear out the shrubs. The day I introduced myself to our new neighbors, a middle-aged couple, I asked the man what he planned to do with the blank slate. “Grass,” he said. “We’re from Oregon. We need to be surrounded by green.” In the intervening time, I’ve seen him pour countless gallons of the Colorado River onto that yard — even hand-watering it with a hose almost every day one summer — in a fruitless attempt to grow a lawn.

Downtown is filled with examples of this juxtaposition: Eco-conscious conservers who embrace desert living; and old-school wasters who don’t want the government telling them they can’t have grass. Former SNWA chief Pat Mulroy acknowledged to me in an interview that her own husband belonged to the latter class of individuals. You can charge them all you want for water, she said, and they don’t care; they’ll pay it. Just don’t tell them what to do.

In this sense, it’s a wonder the Authority has been able to persuade its libertarian-leaning constituency to conserve at all — and admirable it’s accomplished as much as it has. Still, as I walk my dogs each morning and spot a sprinkler spraying the sidewalk on every street (often accumulating in streams running down the gutters), I cringe in frustration. When I hear Fishman say, “It’s illegal to let water hit a paved surface in Las Vegas, whether you’re a business or a homeowner,” I want to invite him to my neighborhood and show him the truth. 

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