February 20th, 2008 by Janel Sterbentz
In an effort to reduce water usage, in 1999 Las Vegas began to offer $1.50 per square foot of lawn removed from residential and commercial properties. The Water Smart Landscapes program estimates that every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart trees, shrubs and flowers saves an average of 55 gallons of water per year, also saving money on monthly water bills. In the first eight years of the measure, about six square miles of grass have been eliminated, saving 18 billion gallons of water.
Despite these efforts, if Las Vegas and surrounding areas do not further cut water usage, there is a 10 percent chance Lake Mead will run dry in six years, and a 50 percent probability it will be completely gone by 2021. These figures are based on a recent study by two researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
Study co-author Tim Barnett, a marine research physicist, said, “We had not expected the problem to be so severe and so up close to us in time.” They say climate change, strong human demand and evaporation are the main factors affecting water in the lake.
Lake Mead contained 35.2 billion tons of water eight years ago, but this has fallen by half because of a decrease in the volume of water flowing in the Colorado River. A drying Colorado River would affect millions of people from Tucson to Tijuana, and Denver to Los Angeles.
According to American Water Works Association Research Foundation about 56 percent of total water used in the US is for residential consumption. Furthermore, 57 percent of residential water goes to watering the yard. In winter in Las Vegas, the watering of gardens is only permitted once a week on a designated day for just 12 minutes. Those violating the watering regulation more than twice are subject to fines of up to 2,560 dollars. However these efforts may not be enough.
Scott Huntley , a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority said “While we wholeheartedly support the authors’ call for greater urban water conservation, it is important to also remember that agriculture uses four-fifths of the Colorado River’s flows, so meaningful solutions cannot be borne solely by urban users.”
Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas has other ideas on how to keep Las Vegas alive. Last Tuesday he declared, “no one is going to allow us to go dry” and vowed to go after Southern California’s water. He said farmers in California “will have their fields go fallow before our spigots run dry.” Finally he said, “We’ll see you at the battlefront,” possibly opening up a multi-state water war.
Water issues are not just affecting the southwestern US. Kaveh Zahedi from the UN Environment Programme says, “Currently, at least 24 nuclear plants in the south-eastern United States face shutdown or drastically limited operations because severe drought conditions have lowered the levels of lakes and rivers that supply cooling water – that’s 23% of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants.”
If we don’t stop climate change now, the future of water in the US will undoubtedly create more water wars between states and cities, and increase water and electricity bills exponentially.
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