Las Vegas: Sustainable oasis or mirage?

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s statement in one of the early Democratic Presidential debates, “We’re here in Las Vegas, one of the most sustainable cities in America,” was widely shared on social media and met with disbelief.



So was O’Malley pandering to the hometown crowd, or is there truth in what he said? As is often the case with bold pronouncements, the real picture isn’t so simple to discern. Las Vegas was formerly known as “the meadows” because of its desert springs. But by 1962, the growing city had sucked up the last drop of the springs, and today the city draws most of its water (90% of its water supply) from the Lake Mead reservoir, the dominant affluent of which is the Colorado River. The volume Nevada is permitted to draw from Lake Mead, i.e. the Colorado river, was determined in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which governs the allocation of water rights of the seven basin states.


Last summer, the downward trend of the Lake Mead reservoir reached a historically low level of 1075 feet from 1220 feet at full capacity. The sprawling city of Las Vegas surely draws a non-negligible volume and, to many, this is precisely what makes the city the opposite of sustainable and Governor O’Malley’s statement so strange. In fact, the Las Vegas Sun even has an online clock that predicts when Sin City will run out of water.



However, the city has made massive cuts in water usage: its residents use 23% less water than a decade ago, thanks to aggressive regulations that included changing all building codes to prevent the installation of grass, converting lawns into drought tolerant landscaping, implementing water budgeting for golf courses, and initiatives taken by most of the Strip’s establishments. Beyond that, Las Vegas will also be the first carbon neutral city in the US by 2025 — although this only applies to the city’s municipal system.


The low water level of Lake Mead made headlines in June 2015, but by July, a different water-related story was in the news.



Late summer storms happen every year in Las Vegas, and every year the intense rainfall on steep mountain slopes and armored desert surfaces runs off and concentrates in the urban areas. According to the Water Pore Partnership, because of the city’s position in the center of the Las Vegas Valley hydrographic basin, the water infrastructure is incapable of absorbing the 27.1 billion gallons of rainwater that flood the center of Las Vegas whenever it rains. Do you see the contradiction here? But there are some people trying to find solutions. For example, the Poreform concept is a modular system of water capture that acts like sponge to absorb the rainfall in Vegas. Although the project has yet to be developed from its conceptual stage, it won the North American Holcim Gold Award in 2014 and could become a game changer.


While Las Vegas faces an uncertain future in terms of its water resources, one could argue that they must have a bright one for their renewable solar energy. Alas, in December of last year, the state’s public utilities commission announced that the fees that solar users pay to use the electricity grid would triple and the reimbursements for feeding electricity into it cut by 75%. Although, the decision may be reconsidered, this makes clear that the necessary development of renewables is not a political reality — yet — in some states.


Las Vegas has the resources and an engaged community that could make it one of America’s most sustainable cities. But perhaps most important, it has the motivation of reality — and the clock is ticking.