Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

Currently: 77° — Complete forecast

A day without water:

Careful planning, conservation helps L.V. delay critical water shortages suffered elsewhere

Lake Mead Water Levels

Lake Mead’s water level is shown from Boulder City on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. At 1,083 feet above sea level, Lake Mead in 2016 reached its lowest point since it began filling in the 1930s.

Media reports describe Cape Town, South Africa, as a parched, barren land where the perfect combination of drought, climate change, a growing population and excessive water use has left officials counting down the days when the coastal city’s tap runs dry.

“Day Zero,” once projected to come as early as April for the developed and popular tourist city of about 4 million people, has been pushed back to 2019, thanks to emergency regulations that have forced residents to use less water. Day Zero would cut off water to the city’s households and businesses, providing access only to hospitals and other vital government buildings.

Clever slogans such as “if it’s yellow, let it mellow,” suggesting users not flush after urinating, and “50 liters (15 gallons) a day keeps Day Zero away,” are among ways the city of Cape Town has reminded citizens of its desperate need to save water. Showers—which consume two to five gallons per minute—are limited to two minutes, and many residents use water from washing their dishes to later flush their toilets or water their plants.

“We have reached the point of no return,” said Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille in a news conference this year. “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water; we must force them.”

As Cape Town’s dated water infrastructure failed to keep up with its growing population, the city’s reservoir levels started declining amid a serious drought beginning in 2015, followed by record-low rainfalls in 2016 and 2017. While the initial response from Capetonian officials was merely to encourage residents to cut down on water use, they eventually had to crack down with enforced water-saving ordinances.

Last September, with Cape Town water reservoirs at just over one-third of their capacity, the city limited each resident to less than 23 gallons of water use per day, city spokesman Luthando Tyhalibongo said. On Feb. 1, the limit became 15 gallons as some of the city’s six main reservoirs dipped as low as 12 percent of their original capacity. De Lille also hiked penalties for excessive water use five-fold, saying at the time more than 60 percent of Cape Town residents had not followed water reduction practices suggested by the city.

“It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero,” de Lille said during a Jan. 18 news conference.

On April 23, the day before heavy rainfall hit the city, reservoirs stood at 18 percent, according to spokesman Sputnik Ratau of South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs.

Even affluent residents of the developed metropolis line up at public water sources and natural springs to collect a maximum of 6.6 gallons as armed police and security guards look on. Bottled water at city grocery stores sell out within minutes, Ratau said, and entrepreneurial tankers inflate their rates to truck in gallons of water from outside cities to Cape Town residents who can afford it. More people are using disposable silverware, plates and cups at meals to avoid cleaning their dishes.

In April, Cape Town was still using about 134 million liters of water per day, according to Tyhalibongo. City officials said the daily usage must fall to about 118 million liters of water per day to avoid Day Zero.

Much-needed rain in the Western Cape region will boost water levels over the region’s winter months of May through August, said meteorologist Joel Guy of the South African news outlet eNCA. That forecast pushed the city to delay Day Zero projections to 2019. Guy believes Day Zero will happen next April.

“If Capetonians are conserving water and we have steady rainfall this year, there’s reason to believe we can avoid Day Zero,” he said.

In the Las Vegas desert, experts don’t believe our local situation will mirror the crisis experienced by Cape Town anytime soon. The valley’s consistent water supply can be attributed to conservation strategies that have served as a model for drought-stricken cities around the world.

Facing a water crisis toward the end of the last millennium, the Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1999 began offering to pay valley residents and businesses to trade in their water-consuming natural grass lawns for more sustainable landscape. The water authority now offers $2 per square foot of grass removed for up to 5,000 square feet, and $1 for every square foot after that for a maximum rebate of $300,000. Grass removal is the easiest and most cost-effective way to cut water use, authority spokesman Bronson Mack said, as one square foot of grass requires up to 55 gallons of water each year in the desert climate.

The Water Smart Landscapes program, known colloquially as the SWNA’s “Cash for Grass” initiative, has resulted in the removal of more than 185 million square feet of grass since 1999, Mack said, resulting in 119 billion gallons of water saved locally on grass watering. That’s enough water to fill the Luxor pyramid 330 times.

“This program is completely centered around providing an incentive for people in our community to make an investment in their property,” Mack said. “The removal of grass, replacing it with water-efficient landscaping, will result in savings for both the homeowner and the community.”

All Las Vegas Valley water used indoors is recycled, Mack said. It’s channeled through hundreds of miles of pipes to treatment facilities, where it’s filtered, cleaned and disinfected. Unlike most western cities where water after use is sent through treatment plants and released downstream, Las Vegas reuses its indoor water, essentially extending the life of the valley's supply.

More than 50 water patrol agents across Southern Nevada — representing the Las Vegas Valley Water District (Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County), North Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City — monitor irrigation systems for homes and businesses, alerting property owners if their systems are out of compliance. Mack said just about all citations are responded to and fixed within a two-week grace period before an $80 fine — which doubles and compounds every two weeks after the original contact from water authorities — kicks in.

Watering restrictions also limit water waste by preventing Southern Nevada residents and businesses from using water outdoors during the hottest times of the day, Mack said. Summer use from May 1 to Aug. 31 restricts outdoor watering between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and watering is prohibited at any time on Sunday. Valley residents are allowed to water on just three days each week during the fall and spring months, and just one day a week during the winter.

Adding to ongoing usage conservation efforts, the water authority has also stashed away about 1.7 million acre-feet of water locally and through agreements with water agencies in Arizona and Colorado. That’s the equivalent of almost six years of water allocations from the Colorado River.

The combination of “proactive” water-saving policies and regulations has helped Southern Nevada stay “ahead of the curve,” said Pat Mulroy, senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV.

“Conservation is always going to be foundational for Las Vegas,” she added. “There’s a vivid recognition that climate change is very real and we’re going through a protracted dry spell.”

Mulroy, who helped create the water authority in 1991 and sat at its head for almost 25 years before retiring in 2015, said that despite its recent water-conserving success, the valley still faces its fair share of water challenges.

Record-low levels of precipitation and snowpack during the past 18 years, which authorities and experts believe is a result of climate change, has led water officials to project even worse conditions for the future. At 1,083 feet above sea level, Lake Mead in 2016 reached its lowest point since it began filling in the 1930s. That’s more than 130 feet below water levels in 2000.

In its annual Water Resource Plan, which forecasts precipitation and details water conservation strategies for the next 50 years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority predicts further climate change-induced drought will continue to dry up Lake Mead as the region’s population grows. The water authority in 2015 began operating a new water intake pipe at 860 feet in Lake Mead, as levels are expected to one day drop below depths of current intake pipes at 1,050 feet and 1,000 feet. The resource plan said there’s a “high probability” that Lake Mead water levels will fall to under 1,000 feet by 2028.

That means conservation efforts will need to continue to improve, Mulroy said, despite the water authority’s claim that it’s “fully prepared” to meet Southern Nevada’s water supply needs for the next half-century.

“We can’t rest on our laurels and get lulled into complacency,” she said. “Conservation is a journey, not an event.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.