New York New York in Las Vegas Photo: Andrew Cullen

This is an excerpt from A\J's forthcoming Water issue. Subscribe or order the issue now for this and more great stories on fresh- and salt-water initiatives that are making waves and inspiring change in our resource-blessed country and beyond.

This is sustainability, Sin City style. It sounds like a bad joke. After all, Las Vegas is visited by 39 million people yearly, all of whom gobble ghastly amounts of carbon-spewing fossil fuels to drive or fly here. This is where, for just US$250,000, you can push the button that makes an 83-million–litre fountain ejaculate, or play one of 61 iridescently green golf courses scattered across the sprawl in a region that gets 10.7 centimetres of rain annually. Here, urban revitalization involves stringing a canopy of 12.5 million lights over a city street, creating a seizure-inducing display whose effects can be tempered only with the help of 2.8-litre cocktails. Don’t worry; the drinks are cleverly designed to hang around your neck, keeping your hands free for playing slots and smoking.

“Vegas and sustainability are two words that don’t typically come together in most people’s minds,” admits Las Vegas Sustainability Director Tom Perrigo in what may be the diplomatic understatement of the year. But lately, this paragon of excess has been making noteworthy strides in both the public and private sector, from the city government pledging to make its collective facilities “net zero,” to resorts embracing LEED-certified construction.

Of course, the real test for the United States' driest city is water. Ninety per cent of the Vegas metro area’s supply comes from the nearby Colorado River, which is shackled by a 14-year drought. The hard limits to decades of conspicuous consumption are clearly visible just 48 km from the city, where Lake Mead – a reservoir on the river – is so low that 30 vertical metres of its craggy banks are exposed. Even as the Water Authority scours far and wide for new sources, it has also quietly cultivated an old-fashioned alternative: efficiency.

Beyond Inspirada, my tour takes me to a wastewater treatment facility that, after removing all the crap, sends clean water back out to golf courses and parks. I sit down with a group of nerdy engineers – rock stars in their field – whose job it is to find and plug leaks in the nearly 6,600 km of water lines below the city, saving hundreds of millions of litres each year. At a golf course, I try to talk green speeds and turf lengths with a course superintendent who ripped out hectares of grass. And I see first-hand just how much fat some of the mega-casino resorts have managed to cut from their energy and water budgets.

Ultimately, I find evidence that the city is, indeed, becoming vastly more efficient and may even be inching towards so-called sustainability. And it’s not in spite of the raw and uninhibited consumption that has made Vegas a legend, but, ironically, because of it.

If there is a Garden of Eden here, the place that gave Las Vegas life and from which it was ultimately exiled, it lies west of downtown, where wide, strip-mall–lined thoroughfares hem in neighbourhoods of classic, low-slung ranch homes and palm-shaded mini mansions, mostly built in the 1960s and 70s. Across a busy road from what is now a mega-shopping mall, cool, fresh water once bubbled up from a spring that an 1888 traveller described as “five yards in diameter and of unfathomable depth ... below whose sparkling surface it was impossible to sink on account of the strong current that boiled up from the bottom.”

Water in Vegas “is displayed more lasciviously than sex."

In this unforgiving landscape, which gets half the rain Phoenix does, that spring made old Las Vegas an oasis, drawing the railroad and giving life to orchards and then a small city. Two dozen productive wells were sunk nearby, along with hundreds of smaller ones around the Las Vegas Valley. The population bloomed, and by 1962, had sucked the spring dry. Yet Las Vegans refused to give up their oasis. And for a while, they didn’t have to.

The 1922 Compact that divided the waters of the Colorado River gave Nevada 300,000 acre-feet per year (approximately 370 million cubic metres), far less than other states but seemingly enough for a sparsely populated state mostly occupied by federal land and bombing ranges. When the second intake in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, was completed in 1983, Las Vegas Valley urbanites were able to take advantage of the state’s entire Colorado River allotment.

Meanwhile, the advent of air conditioning caused the Southwest to boom. The population of Clark County, Vegas’ home, was 273,000 in 1970. By 1990, it was nearly 800,000. Just as electricity imported from coal plants across the Southwest provided refuge from the broiling heat, Colorado River water kept the place verdant with golf courses, fountains and fake waterfalls. By the late '80s, each Las Vegan used more water than just about anyone else – slightly more than 1,500 litres per day compared to Phoenix’s gluttonous 1,192 litres. “The obsession in Vegas isn’t money or sin,” writes Charles Fishman in his 2011 The Big Thirst. It’s water: “displaying it, unfurling it, playing with it, flaunting it.” Or, as journalist Jacques Leslie observed after seeing the Bellagio fountain: Water in Vegas “is displayed more lasciviously than sex.”

Read the rest in Water, issue 40.5.

Jonathan Thompson is senior editor with High Country News and is based in Durango, Colorado.

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