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Las Vegas now using less water

Joblessness is up, budgets are down, and the housing market has yet to hit bottom. But look on the bright side: We’re using less water.

Through October, the Las Vegas Valley Water District has sold roughly 4 billion gallons less water than it had by the same time last year, a decline of almost 4 percent.

It is the largest such year-to-year decline for the water district in recent memory.

There are any number of reasons for the drop, from conservation initiatives including a recent water rate increase to belt tightening by customers trying to ride out the economic slump. But one cause is sure to raise more eyebrows than the others: Less water is being sold because there are fewer people here to buy it.

Some local demographers now estimate that Clark County’s population actually shrank by nearly 10,400 people over the past year.

The county’s official estimate, adopted last week by the Southern Nevada Planning Coalition, shows a population of 1,986,146 as of July 1. That’s down 10,396 from last year’s estimate of 1,996,542.

If State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle and Gov. Jim Gibbons sign off on this year’s figure, it will mark the first official decline in population since before the county began collecting demographic data in the 1960s, said Jon Wardlaw, who oversees population estimates as assistant planning manager for Clark County.

In the past year alone, the county estimates that the vacancy rate for all housing units — from one-room apartments to single-family homes — has climbed from 4.5 percent to almost 7 percent.

“We’ve had some people leave,” Wardlaw said. “People come and go in response to jobs — casino openings and things like that.”

The county’s annual population estimate is rooted in a simple formula: the total number of housing units times the occupancy rate times the number of people per household. The complicated part is deciding which values to plug into each part of the equation.

And not everyone agrees with the county’s findings.

For example, some skeptics question the demographers’ method of determining how many homes and apartments now stand vacant. “And I will grant them that,” Wardlaw said. “We are consistent, but we may not be right.”

Jeremy Aguero is principal analyst for the Las Vegas-based financial consulting firm Applied Analysis. He believes the so-called “drop” in population is really a correction resulting from inflated population estimates in 2006 and 2007. The people didn’t leave; they were never here to begin with, he said.

“I think we all generally agree with where we are now,” Aguero said.

“The consensus is we’re either flat or in a slight decline,” Wardlaw agreed.

In either case, it’s nothing to get too excited about, Wardlaw said. He expects it to reverse itself late next spring, as the positive impact of falling fuel prices begin to permeate the local economy.

“It’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the total population,” Wardlaw said of the estimated population decline. “It’s a trough, and I think it is only temporary.”

As recently as a year ago, the argument among demographers was over when Clark County’s population would push past 2 million. After the county fell just short of the mark in the official estimate for July 1, 2007, most population experts agreed that 2008’s number would almost certainly begin with a two. That didn’t happen, at least not officially.

“Most of us believe we actually did hit 2 million” before falling back, Wardlaw said. “But there’s no way to tell. There’s no measure of it.”

By Aguero’s estimation, the county’s population actually increased by just under 1 percent over the last year.

“By Southern Nevada standards, that’s a very, very slow rate of growth,” he said, adding that his firm expects growth to slow even further to about half a percent over the next 12 months.

The water district’s numbers seem to bear that out. Though Nevada’s largest water utility has sold less water over last year, it continues to add new customers, albeit at a slower rate.

The utility now serves 340,096 residential and commercial customers in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, up 2,112, or about six-tenths of a percent, since the beginning of the year.

The district’s customer base grew by 2.5 percent in 2007, 4.9 percent in 2006 and 5.7 percent in 2005.

“We could see this coming. All the ingredients were there for a reduction in water sales,” said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the water district.

It’s impossible to know which factor — population, conservation, higher rates, or the economy overall — has played the biggest part in reducing water use, Davis said.

“I think it’s a combination of all those things, and it would be difficult to be able to extract which one is most responsible. You can’t really pull the threads apart like that,” he said.

This marks the fourth time since 2003 that the water district has added customers but sold less water than the previous year. From 2002 to 2007, the valley cut its consumptive use of Colorado River water by some 15 billion gallons a year.

“And during that same span we saw a 400,000 population increase,” Davis said. “It really shows how little water people are using.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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