Daphne Bramham: How dry we are — and how wasteful

Desert cities like Las Vegas are facing some hard questions, and we’re not much help

There’s a kind of apocalyptic madness in the American southwest’s sunbelt during what is officially listed as an exceptional drought.

Apocalyptic madness in the American southwest’s sunbelt
“There’s a kind of apocalyptic madness in the American south-west’s Sunbelt.”

There, almost daily, glowing stories appear in the newspapers about exciting new developments — lush, man-made oases of ornamental lakes, golf courses and swimming pools.

Sometimes those stories even run adjacent to dire reports of wildfires, dried-up riverbeds, voluntary and involuntary water rationing, and hints for washing your car using less than a bucket of water.

It’s not that people living there are oblivious to the connection. Recently, during two weeks in the desert, it was a rare day when someone didn’t talk to me about the drought — how they are trying (or not) to cut back on their own usage, about the replacement of grass with desert plants (pro and con), and about what might happen to property values if things continue.

Those conversations were mostly around the pool and often after a round of golf, because it’s tourism and real estate development that fuel these desert economies.

About two million Canadians visit Las Vegas each year. They are mainly from Western Canada and they account for about 40 per cent of the city’s international visitors.

Palm Springs has a $4-billion tourism industry that is also highly dependent on Canadians. There are no good statistics for what percentage of last year’s visitors were Canadian. But of the 875,000 who arrived by plane in 2013, one in seven flew on Calgary-based WestJet.

Because of those lucrative industries, the folly of building cities in some of the driest and hottest spots on the planet is a conversation that few want to have.

But reality may soon intervene.

What if there is no water for the pools, no ice for the drinks?

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times focused on Lake Mead, which supplies 90 per cent of Las Vegas’s water.

The lake is at its lowest level in generations and, short of some drastic changes, the city’s intake pipe may eventually suck in nothing more than air.

Las Vegas uses more water per capita than almost anywhere else in the world — 219 gallons per person every day.

And that’s a one-third reduction from a few years ago, a result of the city’s $200-million rebate program for replacing grass with desert landscaping and the recycling of all domestic wastewater back into Lake Mead.

In the City of Excess, water is the lifeblood of the tourism industry. Most ostentatiously, it shoots from elaborate fountains and shimmers blue in the huge pools at the hotels along the famous strip of casinos.

John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, told the L.A. Times: “The Strip uses only three per cent of the region’s water, but supplies 70 per cent of its economy.”

The bulk of the water usage keeps lawns and golf courses green, provides ice for all those drinks, showers for those flush with cash (or not), and flushes for all the toilets.

Las Vegas isn’t alone.

Last May in Palm Springs, Calif., the Agua Caliente Indian band filed a lawsuit against the Desert Water Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District for mismanagement of the water supply.

To preserve its entitlement to groundwater, the band filed a lawsuit last May asking for a court order to stop the water authorities from pumping groundwater and using its allotment from the Colorado River to recharge the aquifer. The case has yet to be heard.

Between 1970 and 2013, water levels in wells had declined by an average of 55 feet, according to an analysis done by the Desert Sun newspaper. Since the 1950s, the water level in some areas has fallen by more than 100 feet.

The newspaper reported that the area’s 124 golf courses account for 25 per cent of the water used in the Coachella Valley — even though most courses recycle water.

Who is using how much water is so contentious that the Coachella Valley Water Authority refused the Desert Sun’s request for detailed information about the biggest users.

Why? Privacy concerns, it said.

Winter-weary Canadians aren’t to blame for the Louis XIVesque development in the sunbelt. But we’re among the last people in the world to be pointing fingers.

We have the most freshwater in the world, but we’re also second only to Americans when it comes to worldwide usage rates.

In 2007, Canadians’ freshwater withdrawals were 1,131 cubic metres per capita, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada report. The U.S. rate was 1,632 cubic metres per capita.

Canadians use more than nine times as much water as the thrifty Danes and double a 16-country average of 572 cubic metres per capita.

And it’s our own profligacy coupled with the desire for winter getaways that may make it more difficult to say no when Americans come begging.

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