Las Vegas Is Betting It Can Become the Silicon Valley of Water12 January, 2017 / Articles
LAS VEGAS — It sits covertly in a sandy patch of shrub, an octagonal fiberglass box on the gaudiest avenue in America. Inside is a fist-size hydrophone, one of 13 acoustic devices that listen continuously for the minutest of leaks along a miles-long pipeline that daily spits out 7.5 million gallons of water to hotels and casinos along the Las Vegas strip.
It is a piece of sophisticated water technology every bit as remarkable as the 36-story glass pyramid and the replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza that tower across the street. And it is no accident that the first public utility in the country to deploy this technology is in Las Vegas.
If Las Vegas is the most profligate place on earth, where chance is king and the future is routinely gambled away, it is also possibly the most frugal and forward-looking American city in one respect: water. And now it’s trying to leverage that reputation by turning itself into a hub for new and innovative water technology.
In the thirstiest city in the nation’s driest state (it gets just 4 inches of rain a year), water is the last thing Las Vegas wants to gamble on. After 16 years of drought, water levels in nearby Lake Mead, the city’s primary water source, have dropped so precipitously that white rings have formed on its banks. Las Vegas, like a bankrupt gambler who suddenly realizes that things have to change, has responded with a host of water conservation measures. New front lawns have been banned for years, and for those grandfathered in, the city actually pays residents to pull up their turf, like a gun buyback program. Golf courses are punished with attention-getting fines for exceeding their rationed allotments. And thanks to a robust recycling program that treats and returns to Lake Mead most of the city’s indoor water, even as the city has grown by half a million people since 2000, it has managed to slash its aggregate water use by a third. But that’s merely the most visible and easily measured success.
The water industry is by nature risk averse, since a mistake can have catastrophic health consequences (see Michigan; Flint). But with more pressure on water supplies around the United States and the world, innovation is increasingly important. Las Vegas’ focus on water—and the constant pressure on its supply—has driven years worth of public experimentation, establishing the area’s umbrella water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, as a nationally recognized leader in water quality treatment. The utility boasts a state-of-the-art laboratory that produces ground-breaking research and a roster of scientists who routinely publish in major academic journals.
About 18 months ago, the region took an even bolder step forward. In a move driven in part by Nevada’s near-collapse during the Great Recession, the state, the city, the University of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, the regional water authority and private industry teamed up to turn that reputation for water innovation into a catalyst for job creation.
They created WaterStart, a tiny incubator that finds and tests promising water technologies and helps hasten them to market. Technologies, for example, to remove nitrates from well water; that use drones to measure plant stress from the air to improve irrigation precision; or, as with those nondescript listening devices stashed along the Strip, to detect leaks before they can cause millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.
A successful test by Las Vegas’ regional water utility can have a huge marketing impact for the company that devised the technology. Already, WaterStart has fielded a raft of inquiries from other cities about the hydrophones.
“Massively useful,” is how Alexis Smith puts it. Her firm, Intelligent Modeling Ltd., maps rain-induced flood patterns and is doing a test run with the Southern Nevada Water Authority right now. “We can use it as a springboard, it opens up the whole territory,” says Smith, who is British, referring to the North American market.
WaterStart has loftier goals than just running tests on innovative products that might help a water utility somewhere else. Commercially viable companies helped by WaterStart pledge to set up shop in Las Vegas or elsewhere in the state, which over time could bring a different set of jobs to a tourism-dependent economy that has experienced dangerous downturns in recent years. In short, WaterStart amounts to a different kind of bet by Las Vegas: That as the world’s interest in water technology grows, it has a rare chance to seed an industry that will not only buttress the city against future downturns, but keep it growing.
Water has always been central to Las Vegas. It was an artesian spring, now long drained, that first drew travelers here in the mid-19th century. The natural oasis gave rise to the city’s name, which means “the meadows” in Spanish.
In 1922, Nevada cut a deal with six other states that gave the then sparsely populated state an annual allotment from the Colorado River. The 94-year old Colorado River Compact still governs the city’s water use. At the time, that allotment of 300,000 acre-feet (one acre-foot is the amount of water covering one acre of land one-foot deep, about 325,000 gallons) was more than enough to satisfy a state with fewer than 100,000 people, and a population of fewer than 5,000 in the Las Vegas valley.
Amazingly, it still is enough, with room to spare. Rigorous conservation efforts don’t just outlaw front lawns, but also dictate when residents can water their flowers and wash their cars. And virtually every drop of water used indoors, which accounts for 40 percent of total water consumption, is treated, recycled and returned in near-drinkable quality to its source in Lake Mead 15 miles away. That’s a highly unusual feat for a water agency, but it’s also a crucial water management tool: for every gallon returned, the city gets credit and can take another gallon out, and it’s not counted against its water allotment.
Much of this is the legacy of one person, Patricia Mulroy, who arrived here in 1974 to study German literature at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, went to work for Clark County in 1978—home to the city of Las Vegas—and by 1989 was running the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the biggest water utility in the Valley.
In a business filled almost exclusively with buttoned-down male civil engineers, Mulroy became a celebrity. Charismatic and often abrasive, she was known alternately as the city’s Water Czar and its Water Witch, after a brazen move to buy up unclaimed groundwater in eastern Nevada and bring it to Las Vegas on a still-unbuilt 300-mile underground pipeline—an emergency reserve if Lake Mead continues its decline.
“It was harder in the beginning, between being called ‘little lady,’ and ‘Patty,’ and ‘Chief Chick,’” says Mulroy, 63, who retired in 2014 and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Mountain West campus at UNLV.
Three years after taking over the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she helped push through a new umbrella agency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). The new central authority, which Mulroy ran for 23 years, encompassed the seven local, often squabbling, agencies in the Las Vegas valley. With a commodity as emotionally charged as water, an umbrella agency made it much easier to craft water resource strategies for the entire valley region.
“You can mine their coal, and take their gas, but the moment you take a drop of water, they go insane,” says Mulroy, in an obvious allusion to her eastern Nevada groundwater project, which has been tied up in litigation for more than a decade.
From the start, Mulroy was well aware that if a water agency was to prosper in the middle of a desert, innovation had to become part of the agency’s DNA. “It’s a constantly changing science,” she says. New potential contaminants are always being discovered. “And the minute you find something,” she says, “somebody feels compelled to regulate it.”
In a tourist-dependent economy like Las Vegas, she adds, “with 40 million tourists a year, one water quality scare, and the cancellations start coming in the front door.”