Anything goes in Las Vegas, except excessive water use. Two decades ago, the city began to grapple with a reality that many other cities in the Southwest were trying to put off: Eventually, it could run out of water.

In contrast with cities like Phoenix or Los Angeles, which get water from a number of sources, Las Vegas still gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and it has little other water to tap into. By the time the river hit a record low in 2002, Las Vegas had begun taking aggressive water-saving measures to meet population growth and adapt to a drying river. The city known for excess and summer pool parties began counting every drop, even the small dribbles flowing onto asphalt. “We couldn’t have made additional water commitments,” says John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s general manager—no more homes, no more casinos, no population growth at all.

Workers remove grass from Las Vegas lawns
Workers remove grass from Las Vegas lawns. A law passed in 2021 prohibits commercial and multifamily properties from watering non-functional turf (as opposed to useful turf like soccer fields). Residents of single-family homes get a cash incentive for grass removal. Pete McBride

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Today signs of growth in Las Vegas are unavoidable. Traffic. New buildings. A push to open up federal public land for private development. At a diner in downtown Las Vegas, where construction cranes mark the sky, State Assemblyman Howard Watts III, who has sponsored a slate of recent Las Vegas conservation bills, says growth is something the city continues to grapple with—and a lot comes down to how water is managed. “What’s the water bottom line going to be,” he asks, “and how do you make that math work?”

The restrictions in place in Las Vegas include limiting pool sizes, forbidding cooling systems that pass air over evaporated water (also known as swamp coolers) in new buildings, issuing fines when water leaks onto sidewalks, restricting personal car washing to once a week, and prohibiting homes from having fountains or decorative ponds larger than ten square feet. Vegas has also successfully incentivized the removal of roughly 200 million square feet of turf, saving more than 10 percent of Nevada’s Colorado River allocation. (The state is allotted about 1.8 percent of the river’s total water supply.) Taken together, the city’s water restrictions have freed up room for growth: Over the past two decades, Southern Nevada added about 750,000 residents while reducing Colorado River water consumption by 31 percent, according to one official.

Angel Park
Angel Park, a public golf course in Las Vegas that’s been open for more than 30 years, now uses non-potable reclaimed wastewater. In 2021, the Las Vegas Valley Water District voted to prevent any new golf courses from using water from the Colorado River. Pete McBride

But the need for conservation has become even more pressing. In 2022, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the Unites States, both fed by the Colorado River, were again at record lows. Federal water officials warned that major cutbacks were necessary in some of the states that rely on the Colorado River: Nevada, Arizona and California. In response, the federal government declared its authority—in a worst-case shortage crisis—to make sweeping water cuts to cities across the Southwest. Such a scenario was avoided following a wet winter in early 2023, but climate scientists expect the overtapped watershed to provide less and less water in the future.

The Phoenix area and other cities are now facing pressure to catch up with Las Vegas as the Southwest becomes even more arid. Phoenix proper gets only about one-third of its water from the Colorado River. But outside its city limits, areas like Scottsdale are more dependent on the river. Scottsdale asked its residents to reduce water use by 5 percent, stopped homeowner associations from requiring overseeding lawns and banned the use of grass in front yards for new developments.

Las Vegas pool
A guest swims in a Las Vegas pool filled with treated gray water. To qualify as gray, the water must come from non-sewage sources like showers and washing machines. Water recycled from sewage systems is called black water and cannot be used in pools. Pete McBride

In an especially dramatic move, Scottsdale cut off water to the Rio Verde Foothills, an outlying community of 2,000 homes. The community was built by so-called wildcat developers who avoided official requirements for subdivisions. Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act, passed in 1980, requires developers in urban areas to prove that they can meet residents’ water needs for the next 100 years. The developers behind Rio Verde Foothills took advantage of legal loopholes to sidestep this requirement. So people went ahead and bought homes there, even though Rio Verde Foothills lies beyond the reach of Scottsdale’s pipe systems, and the groundwater isn’t plentiful enough for all residents to access wells.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead—America’s largest reservoir, just outside Las Vegas—had its highest recorded level in July 1983 and its lowest in July 2022. An above-average 2023 snowpack then raised the level, but only temporarily. Pete McBride

For decades, many of the households in Rio Verde Foothills had their water hauled in from Scottsdale’s water supply. But in 2022, Scottsdale announced that it would stop supplying that water. “There is no Santa Claus,” declared Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega in a statement on December 9, 2022, echoing the kinds of warnings Las Vegas officials have been issuing for years. “The mega-drought tells us all—water is not a compassion game.” Scottsdale later agreed to keep supplying water until the end of 2025, though it’s bringing in that supply from outside contractors. Eventually, Rio Verde Foothills will find its own source of water.

Cameron Donnarumma is a Las Vegas water-waste investigator, or “water cop,” and he usually rolls out in his patrol car at 4 a.m., before residents power up their sprinklers. (Each address has a mandated watering time, which changes seasonally and is designed to minimize freezing and evaporation.) His job description, laid out on a flashy decal wrapped around the side of the car, is “to protect and conserve.” Before the sun rises, he gets a firsthand look at the changing landscape of the Las Vegas Valley, where lush green plots have been replaced with rocks, succulents, flowering bushes and long, scrubby desert grasses.

Central Arizona Project
In Phoenix, water from the Central Arizona Project snakes through the city. The aqueduct sends about 1.4 million acre-feet of water 336 miles uphill from the Colorado River to supply roughly half the drinking water for Phoenix and all the drinking water for Tucson. Pete McBride

In 2021, the Nevada Legislature required the removal of sidewalk and median turf by 2026. Yard signs mark patches of dry grass along sidewalks, curbs and artificial lakes. “This Turf Removal is mandated by State Law AB356,” the signs tell residents. Once an emerald patchwork in the desert, the grass is no longer watered. It’s on its way out, as are hundreds more acres of turf across the Las Vegas Valley, which gets about four inches of rain each year.

On a recent ride-along, Donnarumma flared bright amber strobe lights as he drove his car into a community in northwest Las Vegas. It was not long before he spotted a sprinkler run afoul. The violation was the most common issue he sees: water leaving the property and running into the street. Since it was the household’s first offense, it got off with a warning. Another violation will come with an $80 fine, doubling from there.

But speaking with a customer face-to- face is even better. “We’re not here to be scary and to be bullies,” he says. “We’re here to educate customers.”

Las Vegas Neighborhood
Look closely at the landscaping in this neighborhood on the northeast edge of Las Vegas. You’ll see patches of dry ground, dotted with scrubby desert plants that can survive with little water. Pete McBride

Not everybody appreciates the lesson. One citizens’ group, the Water Fairness Coalition, has appeared at recent county meetings to question for whom they are making sacrifices. Why should they forgo water to make room for growth? What about the farmers who use about 80 percent of the Colorado River, compared with the sliver Las Vegas gets? And what will happen to the old-growth trees?

Norm Schilling, a local landscaper and co-host of the show “Desert Bloom” on Las Vegas’s NPR affiliate, sees this tension encapsulated in an old walnut tree. Standing in the front yard of one of his customer’s homes in McNeil Estates—where older homes have lush landscapes—he points to a walnut tree flanked by grass. Schilling says its roots still need grass to survive. He worries that new excessive use fees could force residents to rip up healthy, shady trees and replace them with smaller, less mature trees—albeit more drought-resistant ones. Schilling wants the water authority to slow down, preserve existing trees, adjust fees more gradually and phase in change. “Let us nurture the urban forests that we have,” he says. “And let us have a very thoughtful, timely transition.”

The Las Vegas Wash
The Las Vegas Wash, which runs under Lake Las Vegas (pictured), is a 12-mile urban river that connects the Las Vegas Valley with Lake Mead. More than 200 million gallons of water make their way through the wash each day, including groundwater, stormwater and runoff from city streets. Pete McBride

Las Vegas water officials insist that their conservation plan is sound. To tree lovers like Schilling, they say that there are ways to keep trees alive without thirsty lawns and sprinkler systems—for instance, applying water directly to the tree’s roots using a soil probe. They also say the rate structure for water-usage fees is fair, noting that the top 10 percent of residential users consume most of the water. (The thresholds for single-family homes change each season, ranging from 14,000 gallons in winter to 28,000 gallons in summer, and residents have to pay $9 for every 1,000 gallons they go over the limit.) Last year, a water official said he couldn’t imagine that “people would argue that their landscaping matters more than their neighbors do” if deep Colorado River cuts come.

From the sky, golf courses appear as a conspicuous exception, but even they have trimmed back. Golf courses in Vegas have a limited water budget, and that budget is tightening this year. Country clubs have been forced to pull out nonfunctional turf and make other big changes. Anthem Country Club, about 15 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, traded its original rye grass—which stays greener at cold temperatures—for Bermuda grass, which turns browner in the winter but requires less water.

The city is also paying close attention to commercial newcomers, making sure they’ll be amenable to conservation. Recently, officials unveiled a tool to rank the expected water use of companies eyeing Las Vegas. The tool produces an overall water score that is then balanced with other factors like job creation and average salary. But that kind of strategic thinking isn’t the biggest challenge officials say they face.

“I know it sounds simplistic to say, ‘Making people change their behavior is the hardest part,’” says Entsminger, sitting in an executive office that overlooks the Las Vegas Valley. “But that’s always the hardest part. Every group we talk to says, ‘We fully support your conservation programs, but how do we get a carve-out for our little piece?’”

His response: “There’s no silver bullet. This is a silver buckshot. Every single pellet is needed.”

Update, April 24, 2024: A caption in an earlier version of this piece did not make clear that the Las Vegas Wash runs underneath the body of water shown in the picture. We’ve updated the caption for clarity.

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