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.
“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.”
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, .