Western Drought And Population Explosion Strain Water Supply : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money An epic drought and population explosion is draining Lake Mead and the Colorado River, which millions rely on. And then there's the lawns. Today on the show, what happens if the water runs dry?

Should The Lawns In Vegas, Stay In Vegas?

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A couple of weeks ago, Mountain West News Bureau reporter Nate Hegyi was standing on the edge of America's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, that straddles the Arizona and Nevada border. And it's massive.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: More than a hundred miles long, hundreds of feet deep. And part of my job is to report on the growing water shortage in this area because - let's face it - much of this region is a straight-up hot-as-hell desert.

WOODS: That's one way to put it.

HEGYI: And almost everyone in that desert gets their water from pretty much a single source - the Colorado River, which is stretched thin these days.

WOODS: That river is where Lake Mead gets all of its water. It's the critical water source for millions of people living in seven states, in cities like Phoenix, San Diego and Las Vegas. But since the 1980s, Lake Mead and the Colorado River are drying up because - big reveal - this is a desert.

HEGYI: A hot-as-hell desert, right? And climate change is definitely not helping things, I mean, nor is the continued growth. Hordes of people are moving out West, and that's sucking Lake Mead dry. And all this worries Kyle Roerink. He is executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He focuses on water issues in the West.

KYLE ROERINK: I'm a loud-mouth activist.

HEGYI: And these days his loud-mouth activism is focused on Lake Mead and the millions of people who are expected to move to nearby Las Vegas in the next few years.

ROERINK: We can't go on with the status quo of just bulldozing the desert and squeezing as many people as possible and into those single-family homes.



HEGYI: And I'm Nate Hegyi. And this week we're talking about water in the West - or the lack of it. And today, two fast-moving trains that could collide - that lack of water and explosive population growth.


WOODS: Las Vegas is known as an oasis in the Mojave Desert. You fly above all these brown, dry, hot mountains. But when you land in the city, there are palm trees, lawns, the color emerald - massive casinos, also, with big, beautiful fountains and pools.

HEGYI: But those big, beautiful fountains and pools aren't actually very wasteful. The casinos are really conservative with their water. Kyle Roerink says they actually recycle a lot of it.

ROERINK: When I think of water waste in southern Nevada, I'm not thinking of, you know, the tourists taking a shower at the Bellagio after they just watched, you know, the fountain spit up and down outside. That's not what I'm thinking about.

HEGYI: He's thinking about everybody else that lives in Las Vegas. And it's not about the water they use that goes down the drain from showers or going to the bathroom. That's all actually cleaned up and recycled back into Lake Mead. What Roerink is actually worried about is all the water that's used outside - on those green lawns or at the golf courses or in gardens. You know, that actually makes up about 60% of the water used in the city, and it essentially evaporates. So I asked him what he would do if we could anoint him king of Las Vegas and in charge of all water.

ROERINK: On Day 1 there would be no blades of grass left here.

WOODS: R.I.P. grass.

ROERINK: Dead grass. No more.

HEGYI: And the city's actually pushed regulations that reduce the amount of grass a newly built home can have - so no front yard, only half the backyard is grass. But, you know, that said, there are still a lot of existing lawns in Las Vegas.

WOODS: And there'll probably be more of them as the city keeps growing. People love moving there.

HEGYI: Right. I mean, like, political leaders are so hungry to help Las Vegas grow that they're actually pushing federal legislation that would sell off tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped public land south of the city to build thousands of new homes for future residents.

WOODS: Maybe those new residents would want a nice organic garden or a patch of green grass. That, of course, means more water usage.

HEGYI: Yeah. And obviously, Vegas isn't the only Western city that's growing, right? I mean, like, Phoenix is getting bigger. They need more water. St. George Utah is growing. They need more water. And, you know, as we keep saying over and over again, there's only so much water in the West these days. I mean, remember; most of these towns are relying on this one shrinking river - the Colorado.

ROERINK: This brings us to the big economic principle known as the tragedy of the commons.

HEGYI: Environmental economics 101 - if you have a shared resource, people will try to use as much of it as they can. They aren't necessarily bad actors, right? But they're just doing what's best for themselves - taking a drink. But as more and more people or developers take a drink, the water shrinks, and Roerink worries that people will start jostling for those last precious drips.

ROERINK: You know, that's what makes this really scary is, like, are we setting up a situation in our country where one community is more important than other?

WOODS: So winners and losers could emerge from this scenario, but eventually, if all the Colorado water disappears, everyone loses. In that case, is government regulation needed?

HEGYI: That's already happening. For instance, all seven Colorado River states each have a certain allocation of water they're allowed to take each year. And this year, for the first time ever, due to the drought, that allocation was actually limited. And southern Nevada has already done a really good job of conserving water. For instance, Las Vegas has worked really, really hard to reduce consumption among its residents. And they actually chopped it in half over the past two decades by changing development rules and actually paying people to remove lawns and creating these kinds of incentives. But much of the American West as a whole is still in love with its green lawns.

ROERINK: They have to be eradicated. And, like, I hope that doesn't sound, you know, fascist. But, like, having that green lawn goes against, you know, the nature of the Mojave Desert.

HEGYI: But these regulations take political will, and not all state or local governments are on the same page. For instance, there's this one small town - Oakley, Utah - they're actually imposing a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the city's water supply because they just don't have enough water. But in the same state, you've got St. George, Utah, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and they want to actually build a pipeline to suck more water from the Colorado River.

WOODS: So it's complicated because everyone, from developers to political leaders to affordable housing advocates, they all say the same thing - the West is growing, and if we shut the door, stop building, we limit housing supply, prices go up even more. So cities continue to sprawl in these dry Western towns like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise. That helps solve housing affordability, but it does not solve the water problem.

HEGYI: And that's the crux of it. Roerink says if we do keep growing in these deserts, we totally have to rethink how we do it.

ROERINK: The American ideal, the America myth of what homeownership means, of what living in a suburban community means, you know, it needs to be reshaped in the West. Like, if you go to Home Depot's website, it's - you know, nothing increases curb appeal like a lush green lawn. Like, that's insane for out here. You know, like, what about, you know, the beauty of mesquite and creosote and other native flora? Like, what about that? Why can't we embrace that as a society?


WOODS: All right, INDICATOR listeners, we want your help with this question - what is better than a lush green lawn? Finish the sentence.

ROERINK: Nothing increases curb appeal...

WOODS: Nothing increases curb appeal like - dot, dot, dot. Tweet us your answer. We're @theindicator. Or send us an email at indicator@npr.org. On tomorrow's show, as the competition for our dwindling water supply becomes more intense, are water wars on the horizon?


WOODS: This episode was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Kaitlyn Nicholas. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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