How much can we grow?
A boat cruises through The Narrows at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in October 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

PART 10: Water not expected to put the brakes on Las Vegas Valley’s growth


tility officials and outside experts agree that Southern Nevada doesn’t need to be limited by water.

The community can continue to grow, so long as residents are willing to do what needs to be done to stretch that crucial — and finite — resource as far as it will go.

As Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger put it: “The number of people doesn’t matter. It’s the amount of water they deplete from the river that matters.”

Key to this equation is Southern Nevada’s ability to recycle all the water it uses indoors and return it to Lake Mead. It’s communitywide conservation without really trying, and it gives Las Vegas control over its future, said John Fleck, a Colorado River author and expert based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

By building homes with minimal landscaping and little or no consumptive outdoor water use, Fleck said, the community can keep adding new residents for decades without the need for more Colorado River water.

“It’s really a community values decision,” he said.

It’s also a regional issue, said Entsminger, noting that the top consumptive uses of water are pasture grass in the upper Colorado River basin, alfalfa grass in the lower basin and Bermuda and fescue in the cities.

“It’s all about the grass,” he said. “If we manage grass in the Colorado River basin, we don’t have to have a water supply problem.”

Watch: How much can we grow?

The business of bigger

Water doesn’t worry Mary Beth Sewald, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Sewald said the community has already demonstrated a remarkable ability to cut water use and expand the economy at the same time.

Valley businesses have played a key role in that success story, she said, by embracing both voluntary conservation initiatives and strict development codes that have cut down on waste.

The Las Vegas chamber and its members have also thrown their weight behind major water infrastructure projects dating to the construction of Hoover Dam, lobbying on behalf of such improvements even when they meant higher taxes, water rates and connection charges, Sewald said.

She expects that level of commitment from business leaders to continue, in part because there really isn’t any other choice.

“Truly, if you don’t grow, you die,” Sewald said. “There will be growth. There’s kind of no way around that. We’re confident that the Southern Nevada Water Authority is positioned well to meet that future demand.”

The key is “smart growth,” said Nat Hodgson, CEO of the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association.

He said the association partnered with the authority about 15 years ago to help implement once-temporary drought restrictions that have since become the blueprint for how sustainable neighborhoods are built in Southern Nevada. For example, he said, outdoor water use can reduced to “almost nil” by using desert plants and drip systems.

For his part, Hodgson said he installed artificial grass in the front and back of his half-acre lot in 2005, and he couldn’t be happier about the water — and the hours of mowing — he has saved.

The association and the authority are now taking aim at poorly designed neighborhood common areas and so-called “pocket parks,” where grass is being installed but never used by residents. Hodgson said if they can keep that sort of thing out of master-plans to begin with, the authority won’t have to pay someone a rebate to replace it later on. “Let’s not put in the sod so we can take it out and pay for it. That’s not good planning.”

Hodgson said water has long been the biggest issue in the community, and he thinks it will still be the biggest issue 50 years from now. “But it doesn’t mean we’re running out,” he said. “There’s a lot of smart things we’ve done to set ourselves up for the future. The goal is always smart growth and meeting the demand for housing stock.”

‘Ring’ leader

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., knows how hard it can be to try to control growth in a community that was built on it.

As a Nevada state senator in 1997, she pushed legislation that would have drawn a “ring around the valley” and restricted future development to land within that boundary.

By some estimates at the time, the measure might have limited the community’s population to around 2.2 million, roughly where it is now. But Titus couldn’t get her idea out of committee.

More than 20 years later, the five-term congresswoman is still worried about growth and water — so worried, in fact, that she met recently with Entsminger and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman to get updates on Southern Nevada’s water supply in the face of looming drought cuts on the Colorado River.

Titus said those meetings left her feeling hopeful about the future, so long as the community doesn’t slide back into its old attitude of “Build it and they will come.”

“I never said I wanted to stop growth,” she said. “I just think it needs to be handled responsibly.”

That’s why she is keeping a close eye on Clark County’s current push to get Congress to open up about 40,000 acres of federal land south of the Las Vegas Valley for new commercial and residential development.

“I want to be sure that’s done in a way that’s sustainable,” Titus said.

Addicted to growth?

Conservationist Patrick Donnelly worries about that, too. The Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity said it’s hard to trust the judgment of community leaders beholden to an “economy that’s addicted to growth.”

For proof, he points to the same Clark County lands bill Titus is watching, the one that could bring new subdividions to the empty desert between Sloan and Jean. Donnelly said he has no problem with responsible, water-efficient, infill development within the Las Vegas Valley, but he strongly opposes southward sprawl that would require water to be exported beyond the valley’s limits.

“To quote Edward Abbey, growth without bounds is the ideology of the cancer cell,” he said. “It will ruin the environment. It will ruin the quality of life for all Southern Nevadans.”

But controlling growth isn’t as easy as it sounds, said former water authority general manager Pat Mulroy.

“Tell me how you’re legally going to do it,” said Mulroy, now a senior fellow at UNLV and the Brookings Institution. “The U.S. Constitution gives someone who buys land the ability to reasonably develop that land. We can do some zoning restrictions. We can do land-use restrictions, but you can’t preclude the development.

“And in this country, we get to live where we want to live,” she said.

Quality of life

Michael Cohen — no, not that Michael Cohen — is a senior associate with the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland, California.

He said there are plenty of ways for city leaders to curb reckless growth if they want to. Some communities require developers to show they have a 100-year supply of water available to them. Others impose steep impact fees to pay for infrastructure and weed out poorly financed projects. Cohen said one California town even required one old toilet to be removed for every new toilet installed.

A passenger snaps photos during a mid-day sightseeing cruise of Lake Mead National Recreation Area on in October 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

He said Southern Nevada deserves praise for the great strides it has made in water conservation over the past 20 years. There’s more work to be done, he said, but water likely won’t be what keeps the community from growing.

“The flip side is at what point do you want to become Los Angeles or Phoenix?” Cohen said. “Maybe that’s the limit to growth, when people are stuck in traffic for two hours a day.”

UNLV history professor Michael Green said people are right to question whether Las Vegas knows how to grow sensibly — or how to stop growing altogether should the need arise.

Old habits are hard to break, he said.

“The belief that water’s inexhaustible and that growth is always necessary (has) played an important part in our development. … Today we still have a lot of that mentality,” Green said.

“(But) if the water is limitless, then the growth in theory is limitless. Except then we face the question that any community faces: Well, where is the quality of life?” he said.

“There are always quality of life issues. I think it does take a conversation at least to get us all talking and thinking about it.”

Contact Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Lake Mead Marina sits well below the “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in October 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
An arid economy

When it comes to water, not all growth opportunities are created equal.
As the community looks to broaden its economy, leaders must consider what former Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy called the “invisible water footprint” that comes with certain industries.
“Do you realize it takes 1,300 gallons to make a single cell phone battery? The amount of water we use to create technology is immense,” Mulroy said. “Tesla uses as much as all of Carson City up in Northern Nevada. As we diversify our economy, there are industries that, when you bring them in, you better be wide-eyed and aware of the amount of water they use.”
Current water authority chief John Entsminger said that issue is already discussed, at least casually, in state and local economic development circles, but he thinks some kind of formal policy might be needed in the future as the valley begins to approach its “resource limits.”
“I’d put the threshold at 500-600 acre-feet, which is about one golf course, and say, ‘OK, at that amount and certainly anything above that, we should discuss whether that’s how we want to invest that portion of our future water,” Entsminger said.
Mulroy agreed.
“I’m not saying don’t diversify. I’m saying be aware of its water footprint when you do, and come up with sensible water solutions as you’re bringing in this diversified economic base,” she said. “Don’t fall victim to the invisible water footprint.”

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