Fast-growing Western U.S. cities face water crisis
LAS VEGAS/LOS ANGELES – Desert golf course superintendent Bill Rohret is doing something that 20 years ago would have seemed unthinkable — ripping up bright, green turf by the acre and replacing it with rocks.
Back then “they came in with bulldozers and dynamite, and they took the desert and turned it into a green oasis,” Rohret said, surveying a rock-lined fairway within sight of the Las Vegas strip. “Now … it’s just the reverse.”
The Angel Park Golf Club has torn out 65 acres of off-course grass in the last five years, and 15 more will be removed by 2011, to help conserve local supplies of one of the most precious commodities in the parched American West — fresh water.
But Rohret’s efforts have their limits. His and many other golf courses still pride themselves on their pristine greens and fairways and sparkling fountains, requiring huge daily expenditures of water.
Aiming to cut per capita use by about a third in the face of withering drought expected to worsen with global warming, water authorities in the United States’ driest major city are paying customers $1.50 per square foot to replace grass lawns with desert landscaping.
Built in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas leads Western U.S. cities scrambling to slash water consumption, increase recycling and squeeze more from underground aquifers as long-reliable surface water sources dry up.
From handing out fines for leaky sprinklers to charging homeowners high rates for high use, water officials in the U.S. West are chasing down squandered water one gallon at a time.
Nowhere is the sense of crisis more visible than on the outskirts of Las Vegas at Lake Mead, the nation’s largest manmade reservoir, fed by the once-mighty Colorado River. A principal source of water for Nevada and Southern California, the lake has dipped to below half its capacity, leaving an ominous, white “bathtub ring” that grows thicker each year.
“We are in the eye of the storm,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “As the realities of climate change began to manifest themselves at the beginning of this century, we had to get serious about it.”
For now, policymakers have emphasized the need to curb water use rather than urban growth, though the U.S. recession has put the brakes on commercial and housing development that otherwise would be at odds with the West’s water scarcity.
Warm, dry weather has long made the American West attractive to visitors, but piped-in water has created artificial oases, luring millions to settle in the region. Las Vegas has ranked as one of the fastest-growing major cities.
But scientists say climate change is shriveling the snow pack in California’s Sierra Nevada, the state’s main source of fresh surface water, and in the Rocky Mountains that feed the Colorado River, whose waters sustain seven states.
Further pressure from farming and urban sprawl is straining underground aquifers, placing a question mark over the future growth of cities from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona.
“There is going to have to be a big adjustment in the American Southwest and in California as we come to grips with limits in this century — not just limited water, but also limited water supply,” said James Powell, author of the book “Dead Pool,” exploring challenges facing planners in the West.
Reactions among local water authorities differ.
In Phoenix, the United States’ fifth-largest city, authorities say sustainable groundwater and ample surface water allocations from the Colorado and Salt rivers meet the city’s needs, even factoring in growth through a moderate drought. The city is also recycling waste water and plans to pump some back into the aquifer as a cushion.