Lawn lovers resent breakneck growth

In last Sunday's column, I suggested that if we are serious about water conservation, we should eliminate all lawns across the valley.

As you might expect, this idea elicited a flurry of spirited responses. I was pleased to hear from a couple of readers who wholeheartedly agreed with me, including one who concluded, "Drastic times demand drastic measures, not rhetoric."

But the bulk of the responses came from a more defiant perspective, reflecting a deep cynicism about the motivations of water district officials, politicians, casinos and developers.

The main thrust was this: Why should we conserve water when it's just going to be used to fuel the continued growth of Las Vegas?

In other words, we give up our beautiful lawns because we are good little conservation-minded citizens. But our well-meaning sacrifice ends up being taken advantage of by growth-addicted industries and the invertebrate politicians who serve them.

"I have no interest in taking out my lawn so that some developer can build additional homes and commercial space," one reader wrote.

Another said he wouldn't get rid of his lawn when so many Strip resorts have lakes and water shows and when local governments approve thousands of building permits: "I am not going to dig it up for you or anyone else until ... local and state governments become more responsible about our city's continued health and not how much more money they can generate."

Another reader commented: "As a 50-year resident who enjoys the look of my green lawn, I am keeping it. Until I hear someone in power or with the water district say there should be a building moratorium and all new homes will be solar (powered), I don't believe they are really committed to change and they should stop talking conservation, because they aren't serious about it."

This issue of conservation vs. growth is very interesting. There is a simmering sentiment that Las Vegas has grown big enough, thank you, and it's past time to apply the brakes.

This viewpoint seems prevalent, especially among longtime residents, but it has not manifested itself in local politics. As I pointed out to one vehement growth critic, residents have made no effort whatsoever over the years to work politically to slow or stop growth. We keep electing pro-growth candidates over and over again.

One reason we do this, of course, is there have been few if any candidates who advocate slowing or stopping growth. And one big reason there have been so few is they can't attract campaign money from major local industries, most of which depend on growth.

But that's a poor excuse for apathy, really. If Las Vegans were willing to get organized and rally around the slow-growth bandwagon, they could shake up the local establishment.

But I doubt it'll happen -- ever. Most Las Vegans have little sustained interest in local politics, other than to chuckle over the mayor's antics or groan about the county commissioners they elected who are now in prison.

Take, for instance, the rural water pipeline. The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to spend up to $3.5 billion on a pipeline to bring groundwater from east-central Nevada to -- you guessed it -- fuel more Las Vegas growth. Several readers cited this project as further evidence of why they won't get rid of their lawns.

"Now that the plans are in place to build a pipeline to the north to suck their water out, what do we need to conserve for?" one reader asked. "I am convinced that the politicians, casinos and developers can get whatever they need from wherever, whenever they need or want it."

The rural pipeline is unquestionably a conduit for continued Las Vegas growth, yet local opposition has been minimal. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and a few individual environmentalists have expressed opposition, but as for the seething anti-growth populace? Relative silence.

All that said, there are bigger problems with the notion of slowing or stopping growth.

1. It's impractical. The primary migratory shift in the Western Hemisphere is to the American Southwest. In other words, people are going to move to places such as Las Vegas whether we like it or not. We could stop approving new subdivisions but the people still would come. They are so intent on moving here that they would bunk up two and three families per house if necessary.

Wouldn't that be a mess?

2. It would seriously damage the local economy. For better or worse -- often for worse -- the Las Vegas economy is built on growth. The casinos, the home builders, the commercial developers -- our largest industries and their employees would be hit hard. Witness the painful layoffs and other ill effects of the recent real estate slide.

3. The problem isn't really growth -- it's the poor job our political leaders have done in coping with it. The people we elected have failed to deal with traffic congestion, school crowding, homelessness and numerous other growth-related problems. There are proven ways to tackle these challenges, but most of them cost money, and Nevada seems ever eager to follow its fiscal conservatism out the window.

It's clear that many Las Vegans have given considerable thought to water conservation. It's rarely ignorance that leads people to maintain large, water-guzzling lawns. They have surveyed our political landscape and concluded that only fools conserve water.

But encouragingly, some are taking a loftier path. They recognize that grass is not native to the Mojave Desert. They see that we are enduring an eighth year of drought. They believe that, regardless of the twisted local political calculus, conserving water is the right thing to do.

One conservation-minded reader shot back at the water guzzlers: "As long as people moving here want to make Las Vegas look like back home, the water supply will continue to waste away. If they like back home so much, they should move back. This is the desert. Get used to it or leave. And take your grass with you."

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.