Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/17/2009 10:57:41 AM ET 2009-11-17T15:57:41

The resorts along Las Vegas Boulevard sit not just in the middle of a desert, but at a crossroads where conspicuous consumption meets scarce resources.

Las Vegas wouldn’t be what it is if not for Hoover Dam and the Colorado River water impounded behind it. On average, the city receives just four inches of rainfall a year, relying instead on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water needs.

Making matters worse, the city and surrounding region have been gripped by drought for much of the last decade. In October 1999, the elevation of Lake Mead at Hoover Dam stood at 1,212 feet; 10 years later, it barely reached 1,093, a drop of almost 120 feet.

Las Vegas also sucks up an inordinate amount of energy — in July, electricity usage hit 5,586 megawatts, a peak for 2009. Approximately 90 percent of the city’s power is generated from non-renewable resources, including oil and natural gas.

So, when it comes to sustainable design, the Strip is not likely the first place that comes to mind. The flashing lights, the flowing fountains, the air conditioning by the acre — the place doesn’t exactly scream conservation.

Leading the charge
And yet, sheer size aside, the resorts along the Strip are actually leading the conservation charge.

Harrah’s Entertainment, which owns Bally’s, Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas, among others, has spent $60 million on conservation projects over the last six years. In Las Vegas, major efforts include a multi-resort laundry facility that cuts water use by 30 percent — despite a 40-percent increase in capacity — and a five-megawatt cogeneration plant at the Rio that generates enough electricity to power one of the hotel’s two towers.

“We’re an unusual suspect for conservation efforts,” admits Gwen Migita, Harrah’s director of corporate social responsibility. “People come here for the gaming and the experiences, so we take care of the bigger impact issues behind the scenes.”

CityCenter, MGM Mirage’s 67-acre resort complex set to open two weeks from now, was built green enough that the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has declared four of its properties LEED Gold certified, its second-highest designation. The property will feature, among other things, a cogeneration plant that will provide 10 percent of electricity needs and use the waste heat to warm the resort's water supply, low-flow fixtures that will cut indoor water usage up to 45 percent, and glass and sunshades that let in light but deflect the desert heat, cutting down on lighting and air-conditioning.

Cindy Ortega, senior vice president of energy and environmental services for MGM Mirage, said even the biggest projects can be good for the environment: “Yes, we could’ve built it smaller and stayed within the same code and had the same environmental impact. Or we could’ve pursued LEED certification, made it harder on ourselves and built it the way we did. That’s what we chose to do.”

Ultimately, the issue comes down to what constitutes true sustainability.

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“Is sustainability about being less bad than you might have otherwise or is it about being regenerative?” asks Jim Nicolow, director of sustainability at the architecture firm of Lord, Aeck & Sargent. “I don’t doubt that [MGM Mirage] is making legitimate improvements to what would be practice as usual, but is developing 70 acres in the desert the direction the world needs to go?”

Best of both worlds
Philosophical debates aside, the resorts along the Strip have all made major moves to improve energy efficiency. “If they can have that spark and sizzle with less energy consumption, you get the best of both worlds,” says Mark Severts, project communications director for NV Energy, the state’s primary supplier. “It’ll still look like, ‘Wow, Las Vegas,’ but they’re not spending as much money as people think they are.”

Sin City revealed

Which, it turns out, plays directly into the idea that the Strip wastes natural resources willy-nilly. “The Strip is a place of images and illusions,” says Nicole Lise, public information coordinator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “but the illusion isn’t limited to the clubs and the shows; it’s also about the use of water and energy. The reality is that the resorts on the Strip only use about six percent of our water.”

As for building bigger rather than smaller, both Nicolow and Ortega agree that big projects, and by extension big business, play a crucial role in the evolving arena of sustainability.

“If you want to change markets and have a faster and more comprehensive solution, then big business is the answer,” says Ortega. “CityCenter has fundamentally moved the needle on sustainable design.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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