LAS VEGAS (CN) - Population growth and drought in the Sun Belt are forcing residents and governments to find new water sources, particularly in the Las Vegas area, which has grown from around 25,000 in the 1950s to nearly 2 million today.
More growth is expected in Las Vegas Valley, which is near the largest reservoir in the United States.
A proposed 263-mile pipeline that would send water from the Great Basin to Las Vegas has met furious opposition and is tied up in state and federal courts.
"Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting," said Center for Biological Diversity scientist Rob Mrowka, quoting Mark Twain on water in the parched West.
Mrowka, formerly the environmental planning manager for Clark County, now is a specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. He says the proposed pipeline is among many issues facing the Desert Southwest as well as Las Vegas and could have a significant impact on far more than just population centers in the Southwest.
"The big picture is: What is sustainable and viable for the American Southwest, given climate change?" Mrowka said.
Mrowka says native plants in particular are susceptible to changes in water availability and could lead to a complete change in local habitat.
"As you start giving away more water, plants start to die out and get replaced by more noxious plants. Over decades we will see significant changes in species and the ecosystem," Mrowka said.
Although Las Vegas is next to Lake Mead, its rapid growth from a village into the fastest-growing community in the United States has transformed its water needs.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority indicates area residents consume an average of 124 gallons of water per person per day and use an average of 212 gallons of water per person per day. It wants to reduce the total use per person per day to 199 gallons by 2035.
Doing so largely will rest on removing grass lawns, which account for much of the water use in Las Vegas.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority helped develop new guidelines in 2003 that call for no lawns in the front yards of newly built homes and suggest grass in only half of the back yards, said Nicole Lise, the authority's public information director. Instead of grass, the homes have desert landscaping. Homes with lawns are subject to specific watering schedules that change every three months.
The new spring rules began March 1, and homeowners can water their lawns on three designated days per week, Lise said.
When summer rules start in June, homeowners will have just one day a week to water their lawns - but not in the afternoons. They go back to three days per week in the fall and back to one during the winter, when grass doesn't grow well.
The days that homeowners in particular neighborhoods can water their lawns rotates.
"Rotating watering days makes it easier to enforce the law," Lise said. "We can concentrate on the areas that aren't supposed to be watering on a particular day."
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has initiated a Water Smart Home program to reduce residential water use. The authority worked with the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association to ensure that new homes are built with low-flow toilets and showers instead of bathtubs, to preserve water.