Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Yes, We Can
Some of you folks might have caught another virtuoso performance by Water Czarina Pat Mulroy on NBC Nightly News Tuesday night. She insisted, as she has consistently, that conservation would not solve Las Vegas' water woes.
Well, Pat is also a huge champion for accelerated construction of tract homes and slot machines, and wants to cram millions more people into the Las Vegas Valley. Water is the lubricant that would help slide those millions in, and she's happy to defoliate the Great Basin if that's what it takes to bring the water here.
But in fact, conservation can work. As there is with any change in public policy, there is a political cost, and I suspect that's what the Water Authority and its political leadership wants to avoid.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Las Vegas Valley Water District's advisory committee considering rate changes, and I have been very vocal in pushing for the most aggressive pricing structure possible to reward conservation and discourage heavy water use. Not everyone on the committee agrees with me, and a few committee appointees roll their eyes when I talk about the importance of conservation.)
But can it work? Sure. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is among the cities of the Southwest that instituted conservation measures, most significantly dramatic increases in the cost of water for the heaviest consumers - a classic "tiered" water rate structure.
In 1989, Albuquerque used 279 gallons per person, per day. By 2003, the city had trimmed that number to 193 gallons, and the number continues to fall. Residential use, differentiated from the overall numbers, is even better - it is at 135 gallons per day.
Las Vegas' overall per capita number is 265, and the residential number, as of 2001, was 230. In some cities, the top rate caps out at more than $10 per 1,000 gallons. Ours is at $3.50. Clearly we can charge more for those who insist on using huge amounts of water, while rewarding those who are relatively frugal with frozen or even reduced rates.
Water Authority officials insist that you cannot compare the per capita numbers from various cities because environmental conditions are so different. I don't fully accept that, but let's take their argument on face value. The same officials say that what you can do is use the numbers as an indicator of progress.
What we have seen, then, is truly significant progress by cities that have insituted strong conservation measures. We can do that in Las Vegas as well.
The benefits would include eliminating the necessity of the Water Grab, providing a cushion for responsible growth, and bringing our urban existence into some sort of harmony with our environment. The costs would be the loss of those vast swathes of emerald green turf, watered at all hours of the day even in the sweltering heat of mid-summer, that "enhance" our suburban roads.
Can it be done? Sure. What remains to be seen is if we have the will.