Day 133-137: Nevada: And the water goes to…DOH!

Oh boy. More and more we are coming to understand that water is our most precious resource!
We have heard in several states now by several different people, this Mark Twain quote: “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fightin over…” and we are seeing how this may be as true now as it ever was. Nebraskans have to limit their water intake for the residents of Kansas, Coloradans have been legally obligated to personally conserve water or some time now – in order that states downstream get their “fair share” of the Colorado, and Nevadans are being offered incentives to “tear up their turf,” (basically, let their lawn be torn out and replanted with native Nevadan desert plants.) And the population is booming.

Think about it: the human body is basically 70% water. The earth is about 3/4 water – which might seem like plenty until you recognize that only about 2% of the water on the earth is fresh water (drinkable). Some human communities are more used to droughts than others, due to their usual arid climate, and we are seeing exploding populations in the 2 states that are basically situated in a desert. Nevada is the first one we visited, so water is what we focused on there.

We stopped first at Lake Tahoe near Reno, then on to visit the Mount Rose SnoTel site with water supply specialist, Dan Greenlee, who showed us the measuring facility and how it works under tens of feet of snowfall every winter. Ben wanted to hear that there is a demonstrable deficit in snowfall these days but Dan explained that there is still much change from year to year (ie: last year was one of the driest measured years in history but the year before was one of the wettest). So, no conclusions from the Snotel site, though Dan confessed that he believes that climate change is inevitable and he is worried.

Next we stopped at Walker Lake, which Dan had mentioned as one of only 5 terminus lakes in the world (meaning that it doesn’t end in the ocean). It is one of the Nevada lakes that feed the desert population’s thirst. You can see from our pictures that the water is low… According to the USGS report (US Geological Society), the lake is now only 83′ deep at its maximum. Since the lake has reportedly declined 145′ since 1882, this means that, according to my math, Walker Lake was 228′ deep and has lost over 70% of its volume. And Nevada is the fastest growing state (re: population) in the nation. Look out, fishes. Not only is there less water but it is way more saline due to to concentrated mineral salts so fish are NOT thriving there at all.

And we were on our way to Las Vegas, city of lights, broken dreams, facades in all flavors with their own water features and a whole new level of mindless consumption. The really nice people we were going to house us came down with a meningitis-y type illness, so we opted for safety and stayed instead at a Budget Suitey-type thing off the Strip. I worried over the amount of pollution that we were inhaling on a daily basis being so close to the highway…

We were pleased to get to talk to Doug Bennett, Conservation Manager for the SNWA (Southern Nevada Water Authority). Doug told us that Nevada (which gets only 4″ of rainfall per year) is special because, although water conservation laws are regionally decided, Nevada municipalities are working together so that everybody can be on the same page. He believes that the biggest challenge is keeping Nevada cool. This they want to do by planting foliage, but it has to be done sustainably. Nevadans are being offered incentives to tear up their turf (see this excellent article) and are being asked to replace traditional lawns with natural desert landscape (see photo) or, hilariously, astroturf. From what we understood, new developments are not allowed swimming pools or lawns. And people in Georgia are calling up Doug to find out Nevada’s tricks to dealing with drought. Policy-makers are taking the water shortage very seriously. Fines are in place for people who water during the day, or allow water to flow over paved surfaces, and increase with every offense. After all, water is incredibly valuable and, as Bennett puts it, “Water running into the street has NO value…Nobody grew up with a waterfall in their front yard. We just have to remind them.”

And then we hit the Strip. Man, I was not looking forward to it, feeling kind of crappy. We found parking fast, and i followed the boys around while they shot b-roll. We watched a crazy water show in the fountains in front of the Bellagio (I had never known that fountains could dance!) and I found myself wondering how much of that supposedly recycled water gets lost every day in evaporation, and how much energy it takes to make those fountains dance… By 10:30 I really was not doing well and sat down while the boys tried to find people on the streets to talk to. I couldn’t tell you what was said, but they seemed satisfied when I finally said, That’s it, I gotta go. (Thanks, Boys.)

Next day we got a fortunate call back from a friend of ours who is managing Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, and who performs ceremonies as Elvis. We went the very next day and even got to witness the last drunken nuptial of the evening. Surreal. Then Brian put the YERT name up in lights outside the building and proceeded to give us his thoughts on the water situation in Las Vegas, as Elvis. He even improvised a little song for us. Sweet.(Thanks, Brian!)

I feel I ought to mention that several of the people we talked to were quite upset about the fact that Nevada has NO RECYCLING. Even the Whole Foods may not be recycling though it has recycling bins in the front of the store, we can’t be sure. Nobody picks it up. We didn’t have time to investigate but does anybody want to look into that? let us know…

On to Arizona, past Hoover Dam and Lake Meade, which is now at 49% volume. Uh-oh. Composting toilets, anyone?

3 thoughts on “Day 133-137: Nevada: And the water goes to…DOH!

  1. The reason they don’t recycle in Nevada is because they have so much land. It’s not cost effective to recycle if it’s super cheap to get landfill space. In New York we have the opposite scenario – it’s so crowded here that we have to ship our garbage to the Midwest, so sending garbage to the landfill is actually more expensive than sending it to a recycling center in New Jersey. If they want to start recycling in Nevada (which they should, because it is good for the environment and creates jobs), they need to give financial incentives to waste carters to keep the recycling separate from the garbage and out of the landfills.

  2. This comment came from Doug Bennett, Water Conservation Manager for the SNWA (Southern Nevada Water Authority) and is included with his permission: (Thanks, Doug!)

    Mark, Julie and Ben,

    Thanks again for stopping in Las Vegas. I think you captured the essence of our water efficiency efforts in Julie’s blog, but I did want to shed some light on a couple of issues Julie raised.

    We do have curbside residential recycling, but you are right that it is scarce in the commercial sector. If a business wants to recycle, they need to hire a separate firm from the major company that handles our regional solid waste. I think this will be changing soon, as many of the major hotels are becoming LEED certified and are instituting more aggressive environmental programs. My own company pays to have their waste recycled in addition to their normal solid waste expense.

    It does indeed take water, energy and imagination to run the Bellagio fountains. Water use is most efficient when it provides the greatest value. The least efficient water show is the one that few people watch, therefore you, Mark and Ben helped increase efficiency by being there. Although water attractions are extraordinarily visible, surprisingly, they make up less than 2 percent of the land use at a typical mega-resort. If I could exclude the Bellagio (which has a whopping 8 acres of surface), it would be a tiny fraction of one percent.

    Considering our resorts produce a huge portion of our economy, yet consume less than 3 percent of our water resources, it is a relatively well-suited industry for a desert city with cosmopolitan appeal. Lastly, I wanted to point out that some of our most successful new resorts have no elaborate water features at all.

    Doug Bennett
    Conservation Manager, SNWA

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