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Originally published Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Thirsty Las Vegas is a case study of the next global crisis

Las Vegas may lose 40 percent of its water by 2012 if the level of Lake Mead reservoir keeps dropping. Droughts and a growing population mean the risk of such shortages is increasing worldwide.

Bloomberg News

On a cloudless December day in the Nevada desert, workers in white hard hats descend into a 30-foot-wide shaft next to Lake Mead.

As they've been doing since June, they'll dig down into the limestone surrounding the reservoir that supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas' water. In September, when they hit 600 feet, they'll turn and burrow for 3 miles, laying a new pipe as they go.

The crew is in a hurry. It's battling the worst 10-year drought in history along the Colorado River, which feeds the 110-mile-long reservoir. Since 1999, Lake Mead has dropped about 1 percent a year. By 2012, the lake's surface could fall below the existing pipe that delivers 40 percent of the city's water.

As Las Vegas' economy deteriorates, the workers also are racing against a recession that threatens the ability to sell $500 million in bonds so they can complete the job.

Patricia Mulroy, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is the general in this region's war to stem a water emergency playing out worldwide. It's the biggest battle of her 31-year career.

"We've tried everything," Mulroy says. "The way you look at water has to fundamentally change."

Across the planet, people like Mulroy are struggling to solve the next global crisis.

She started her push with conservation. She's paying homeowners $1.50 a square foot to replace lawns with gravel and asking golf courses to dig up turf. That helped cut Las Vegas' water use by 19.4 percent in the seven years ended in 2008, even as the metropolitan area added 482,000 people, bringing the total to 2 million. It wasn't enough.

So she's planning a $3.5 billion, 327 mile underground pipeline to tap aquifers beneath cattle-raising valleys northeast of the city. She's suggested refashioning the plumbing of the entire continent, Paul Bunyan-style, by diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River west toward the Rocky Mountains. If Mulroy's ideas are extreme, one reason is that the planet's most essential resource doesn't work like other commodities.

There's no global marketplace for water. Deals for property, wells and water rights, such as the ones Mulroy must negotiate to build the pipeline, are done piecemeal.

"We have 19th-century ways of utilizing water and 21st-century needs," says Brad Udall, director of Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Water upheavals are intensifying because the population is growing fastest in places where freshwater is either scarce or polluted. Economic roadblocks, such as the global credit crunch and its effects on Mulroy's attempts to sell bonds, multiply during a recession.

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Yet local governments that control water face unyielding pressure from constituents to keep the price low, regardless of cost. Agricultural interests, commercial developers and the housing industry clash over dwindling supplies. Companies, burdened by slowing profits, will be forced to move from dry areas such as the Southwest, Udall says.

"Water is going to be more important than oil in the next 20 years," says Dipak Jain, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who studies why corporations locate where they do.

Even before the now-decadelong drought began punishing Las Vegas, people used more than 75 percent of the water in northern Africa and western Asia that they could get their hands on in 2000, according to the United Nations.

Chronic shortages

In 2002, 8 percent of the world suffered chronic shortages. By 2050, 40 percent of the projected world population, or about 4 billion people, will lack adequate water as entire regions turn dry, the United Nations predicts.

"We can no longer assume that cheap water is available," says Peter Gleick, editor of The World's Water 2008-2009 (Island Press, 2009). "We have to start living within our means."

Over the Sierra Nevada from Las Vegas, Shasta Lake, California's biggest reservoir, is less than a third full because melting snow that fed it for six decades is dwindling. A winter as dry as the previous two may mean rationing for 18 million people in Southern California this year, says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District.

Las Vegas, an adult-entertainment haven carved into the Mojave Desert, may not draw much sympathy as a poster child for water emergencies.

Cravings for greenery

For decades, new residents imported their cravings for lawns, sprinklers, pools and golf courses to a region that receives 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain a year, about 1/10 of what Chicago enjoys. Casinos and hotels with water slides and river rides sucked up limited groundwater.

Until the real-estate meltdown, Nevada was the fastest-growing U.S. market, with a 33 percent surge in new homes from 2000 to '07.

Now the city is getting a dose of reality, says Cecil Garland, a rancher in neighboring Utah who opposes Mulroy's groundwater pipeline.

"Las Vegas is a place of gambling, gluttony and girls," Garland says.

He says there's no extra water along the proposed route, which travels through valleys green with 3-foot-tall shrubs called greasewood. If pumping kills the greasewood, dust storms that plague his town of Callao would soar 5,000 feet into the sky, he says.

"We live in one of the driest areas of the driest part of the U.S.," Garland says. "How in the world can anybody with reason or common sense think they can pump water in the amount they're talking about and leave the integrity of the valley in place?"

Mulroy says Nevada's resorts use 3 percent of the state's water compared with 90 percent going for farms and ranches.

For the past two decades, Mulroy has wrestled with the competing truths that dog all water managers: There's only so much to go around, somebody has already claimed most of it, and citizens and companies keep demanding more.

"People view water as a human right and expect it to be virtually free," says Michael LoCascio at Boston-based Lux Research, which analyzes water issues. "Governments respond to that, and you end up with inefficiency."

Without price-setting markets, water that cost 33 cents a cubic meter for the first 15 cubic meters delivered to homes in Memphis, Tenn., in June 2007 was $3.01 in Atlanta and 57 cents in Las Vegas.

One thing Mulroy has ruled out, even in the economic meltdown, is using water as an excuse to limit Las Vegas' growth.

"During the next 50 years, this country's population is expected to explode by another 140 million," she says, citing U.S. Census projections. "I always ask, 'Where do you want the people to go?' "

Mulroy also opposes the idea of privatizing water.

"You'd be telling people, 'Pay me enough or I withhold it,' " she says, her voice rising, in the cafeteria of Clark County's municipal headquarters. "It's like you're telling me I can live."

In 2002 alone, lack of rainfall lowered the deep-blue waters of Lake Mead by 24.6 feet, stranding docks half a mile from shore.

Today, the lake is 1,112 feet above sea level. Should it fall to 1,075 feet, the federal government would cut the water to seven states that depend on the Colorado River, according to an agreement they all signed in 2007. If that happens, the states would likely renegotiate a 1922 pact that divided up the river's water rights in the first place, Mulroy says.

If the drought persists and more water is diverted from the Colorado, the lake could drop to 1,050 feet. That would prevent water from flowing into the intake pipe and cut 40 percent of Las Vegas's supply — the disaster Mulroy is trying to head off.

Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 to regulate the river and form Lake Mead, wouldn't be able to produce electricity for the 750,000 people it supplies in Los Angeles.

Rancher Dean Baker fears Mulroy's pipeline would drain the water that's let him survive in Snake Valley, in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, for more than half a century.

"Water is the limiting factor in everything we do," Baker says.

"The legacy of this pipeline will be dust."

Baker says people who want to move to Las Vegas should look instead to Mississippi and Louisiana. "People should go where there's water," he says.

Mulroy's struggle to get water to a growing desert population wouldn't have surprised John Wesley Powell, the first known explorer to pass through the entire Grand Canyon 130 miles east of Las Vegas.

"You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over the water rights," he told the International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles in 1893.

"There is no sufficient water to supply the land."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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