In Las Vegas, Lawns Are The Biggest Water Waster

Las Vegas depends on Lake Mead for its water and the reservoir is dropping. The city's water officials long ago instituted water conservation measures. Critics say they are not nearly enough.

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TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: I'm Ted Robbins, in the driest big city in America: Las Vegas, Nevada. In a normal year, they only get about four inches of rain here, although you wouldn't know it from all the fountains and lakes along the Strip.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ROBBINS: This is the picture of Las Vegas visitors see. But it's not the problem. The entire Las Vegas Strip uses only 6 percent of the city's water. And since it generates 75 percent of the area's economy, the dancing fountains aren't going away, even in a drought. The biggest water waster in Las Vegas is residential grass: lawns put in long ago by housing developers.

MATT BAROUDI: We had no choice when we bought the house. It came with grass in the front, as did every house in this neighborhood.

ROBBINS: Matt Baroudi is a transplanted Londoner who runs a landscaping business in Las Vegas. Like many transplanted Las Vegans, he had to adjust to his new desert environment. He now replaces lawns with rock and drought-tolerant plants. The Southern Nevada Water Authority actually pays homeowners $1.50 a square foot to convert their lawns.

BAROUDI: I try to persuade people to, you know, go xeriscape, to save the water, because I see the lake all the time, and I see it going down.

ROBBINS: The lake is Lake Mead, on the Colorado River. It's where Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water, and it's at a historic low level. In order to save water in the city, the water authority has a number of rules, from once-a-week watering, to fines for wasting water, to restrictions on new construction. But critic Rob Mrowka of the Center for Biological Diversity says it's not enough. He'd like to see water rates raised to discourage overuse.

ROB MROWKA: We have some of the cheapest water anywhere in the United States, and yet we're in the driest desert in the country.

ROBBINS: They also have an advanced water distribution system. All indoor water in Las Vegas, from showers to washing machines is recycled.

JOHN ENTSMINGER: If it hits a drain, it's treated, discharged back into Lake Mead, and we can then take out the exact same quantity of water to use again.

ROBBINS: The water authority's new general manager, John Entsminger, says Las Vegas has reduced its water consumption by one-third, even as the population has grown over the last 15 years. But given the historic drought - possibly a new normal - he says it may not be enough.

ENTSMINGER: We need to be prepared to get by with less, moving into the future.

ROBBINS: Or import more water. In the coming decades, Las Vegas could pursue a controversial pipeline to bring water nearly 300 miles from rural eastern Nevada. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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