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Excessive use: Nearly 60K Las Vegans hit with water district’s new fee

Updated July 18, 2023 - 11:53 am

One out of every six homes in the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s jurisdiction has been hit with a new fee aimed at curbing the biggest water users and conserving Southern Nevada’s small share of the Colorado River.

And it’s already making a dent when it comes to saving water in the nation’s driest metropolitan area.

In total, the district has levied more than 140,000 excessive use fees against nearly 60,000 customers from January through June, racking up almost $12.8 million, according to data released by the water district.

In that same six-month period, single-family homes in the district have used about 11 percent less water than the first half of 2022. That marks the lowest amount of water used among the residential sector going back to at least 2018, according to district records.

And among the top 10 percent of the water district’s largest residential consumers — which the fee was designed to target — there has been a 20 percent drop in water use, said J.C. Davis, the district’s director of customer care.

“It’s a little bit better than we modeled it,” Davis said. “People are reacting. That’s what we want.”

The cooler, wetter start to 2023 likely played a role in that drop in overall water use, as well. But the change among the largest group of water users is a good indicator that the fee is working as intended, Davis said.

Residential water use accounts for 60 percent of the water consumed in the Las Vegas Valley. The new excessive use fee was designed to affect the top 10 percent of single-family residential customers, who use 36 percent of all water in the residential sector, according to the water district.

The new excess use charge went into effect on Jan. 1 for about 70 percent of residents in Southern Nevada — those living in the city of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County. The cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas do not have excess use fees.

‘People are taking action’

The new structure set monthly water use thresholds based on the season, with a charge of $9 for every 1,000 gallons used over those monthly limits.

The vast majority of the fees — about 110,000 in total — ranged from $9 to $99 on people’s monthly bills.

Of the nearly 60,000 homes that have received an excessive use fee, only 6 percent have seen the charge on all six monthly water bills this year, Davis said.

“What we’re finding is that people are taking action and dropping out of the excessive use charge,” Davis said.

But many of the valley’s biggest users show few signs of quenching their thirsty ways, despite the new fee adding tens of thousands of dollars to their water bills this year.

The Spanish Trail home linked to the Sultan of Brunei has been billed the most in excess use charges at just over $26,000. The Summerlin home owned by the family of late resort developer Sheldon Adelson was just below that, racking up more than $25,000 in charges.

Red Rock Resorts Director Lorenzo Fertitta’s Summerlin home has faced more than $19,000 in charges, including the highest single-month charge so far for using 737,000 gallons over the district’s threshold in June. Others who have faced hefty excessive use charges include housing developer Joel Laub and Red Rock Resorts CEO Frank Fertitta.

The Fertittas, the Adelson family and Laub could not be reached for interviews for this story.

“The reality is that there is a pretty small subpopulation within our customer base that has not heeded that call,” Davis said. “We’re in the driest metropolitan area in the country, and we’re in the middle of a megadrought, and we can’t afford to live that way.”

Questioning ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach

While the water district says the fee is working as intended, some residents say the fee unfairly affects those living on larger lots and those with mature tree canopies.

Laura McSwain, who lives in the McNeil Estates neighborhood near Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, said that getting her property under the new thresholds would require her to tear out or let several of her old shade trees die.

She said the district is essentially threatening the financial well-being of homeowners like her, “Telling them they have to make some kind of compromise with their assets, probably with their biggest investment they have.”

McSwain, who lives on a half-acre lot she purchased seven years ago, said the thresholds should be based on lot size rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

She said she understands the need to save water, but she does not think current residents should have to bear the brunt of the water savings if that water is only being conserved in order to fuel more growth in Las Vegas. The district, she said, should be aggressive in pursuing other water options instead.

“If this whole goal is to allow another half-million residents into the valley, to keep construction going, well in my opinion that’s stealing,” McSwain said. “You’re taking from property owners that have these larger lots, and now we’re going to deploy these resources somewhere else.”

Davis said the fee is an avoidable one, even for homes on larger lots, so long as they have “southwest-appropriate landscapes.” The median half-acre lot in the valley falls below the excessive use threshold, he added.

“If you have a big lot and you want wall-to-wall fescue, yeah, you’re probably going to pay the excessive use surcharge because you’re trying to replicate Ohio in a big lot in the middle of a desert,” Davis said.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, called the data “really good news” for Southern Nevada’s water supplies and lauded the water district’s decision to use price points to change people’s behaviors.

“I can understand why people are upset, but they have to understand that without the community collectively changing its mindset and outlooks on the future, it’s going to be a painful road ahead,” Roerink said. “Folks who get on board with this mindset now are going to be in a much better place in the next five to 10 years.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the Adelson family.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the water district’s excessive use fee does not apply to those living in Blue Diamond, Kyle Canyon, Laughlin and Searchlight.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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