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Las Vegas Accused of Engineering Massive Water Grab: Is This the Future of the West? [With Photo Slideshow]

Climate change is going to make life harder, water scarcer, and decisions about the future tougher.

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Environmentalists like Rob Mrowka, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, worry not just that impacts will be inevitable, but mitigation that's promised and monitoring of wells won’t come to fruition. “Given the over $15.5 billion price tag of just constructing and financing the pipe, promises to mitigate the impacts are frankly laughable,” said Mrowka.

Boom and Bust

Nevada is no stranger to boom and bust. It was the goldrush and silver-rush that drew the first big populations bursts, after all. Las Vegas has followed in the state’s footsteps with massive increases of residents and visitors. Like a teenager, the city keeps quickly outgrowing its britches — and its resources. In 2010 Clark County, home to Las Vegas, had 1.95 million residents -- 575,000 of those gained since 2000. The area was also averaging nearly 40 million annual visitors. Between 2000 and 2008 it added 310,000 jobs.

The influx created a construction boom that imploded with the financial crash in 2007. Between 2009 and 2010 the area shed 100,000 jobs and construction came to a standstill. Zillow reported in 2011 that the median sales price for homes had declined 55 percent since 2006 and unemployment is some of the highest in the country, with the Business Journal reporting, “Las Vegas' jobless rate shot up by 7.9 points from 5.0 percent in July 2007 to 12.9 percent in the same month of [2012].  The nationwide increase was 3.6 percent during the corresponding period.”

Before the bust, Las Vegas was scrambling to meet the demand for water, as drought (and perhaps climate change) sent water levels at Lake Mead to record lows as population climbed. But Mulroy and the SNWA were financing their solutions — the pipeline and Lake Mead’s third straw — based on revenue coming from connection fees of new houses to water services. But a stalled housing market in recent years has meant a steep fall-off in revenue. Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton reports that from 2007 to 2010 revenue from connection fees fell from $188 million to $3.2 million.

Revenue has also been impacted because Las Vegas residents use less water per capita than they used to. When drought hit in 2000, folks took notice and again in 2001 when the drought continued. “But by 2002, the drought was practically biblical,” said SWNA’s Davis. “The Colorado River got 24 percent of normal runoff and Lake Mead dropped like somebody pulled the drain plug. We realized we had to change the way our community thought about water.”

The SNWA implemented programs like cash for turf removal and plumbed the Las Vegas valley to capture water that goes down the drain. It is then diverted either for irrigation or treated to Clean Water Act standards and piped back to the Colorado River, giving the water authority a credit.

And despite what passes for water profligacy on the Strip, the biggest water guzzlers are property owners with lawns. “Although the fountains are nice targets, it’s people living in the Mojave Desert as if they’ve lived in New England who are the biggest water wasters,” Fulkerson says. Resorts on the Strip use just 3 percent of the water – the biggest use for them is the air-conditioning cooling towers.

The Pacific Institute reported that in SNWA’s service area per capita water use fell by 31 percent between 1990 and 2008. Although since population soared 160 percent, it meant that the total amount of water delivered still increased by 77 percent.

But the region is planning for more booms and now there is less money to finance the supply it thinks it will have. A study the agency commissioned by Hobbs, Ong & Associates and Public Financial Management found that SNWA would need $7.3 billion in bonds to pay for the pipeline and interests payments could tack another $8.2 billion onto that — putting the total around $15.5 billion.

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