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Coming soon to the Las Vegas Strip: Drought rules barring fountains, rivers and lakes

Proposed water cuts could also affect golf courses in southern Nevada, where home swimming pools are already subject to new restrictions.

Water cuts proposed for southern Nevada to cope with drought could change the face of the world-famous Las Vegas Strip, where thousands of visitors amble by gentle rivers fronting hotel-casinos and watch colorful water shows at night.

A series of measures envisioned for metro Las Vegas to reduce water consumption would bar new resort hotels from including water features in their designs, like the popular Fountains of Bellagio at the Italian-themed Bellagio hotel.

One of the three proposals outlined by the Las Vegas Valley Water District would slap owners of single-family homes, starting next year, with a $9 fee for every 1,000 gallons they use over the seasonal water limit. Under another proposal, water budgets for golf courses would shrink by a third in 2024.

The proposals will be voted on by the water district board when the public comment period is over.

One rule already set to take effect Sept. 1 will limit residential swimming pools to a maximum size of 600 square feet. And down the road, water officials could further restrict outdoor water use as part of an ongoing preemptive effort.

The proposed restrictions follow the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's recent announcement that Nevada would have to cut its water consumption from the Colorado River by 8% next year, as Western states grapple with reducing its reliance on the once-mighty river amid a historic drought. 

Nevada, which uses the smallest amount of water among the seven states that draw from the river, said it will reduce its annual allocation of 300,000 acre-feet by 25,000 acre-feet next year. An acre-foot of water can supply two families of four for a year. Nevada used 242,000 acre-feet last year.

“It was something that we’ve known was coming,” said Bronson Mack, spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We have been preparing for it,” he said, adding if more cuts are made, it will come from outdoor water use.

The other states are Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which have to come up with a plan to save an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water from the river.

The Bureau of Water Reclamation gave the states until last week to devise a plan, but they failed to reach an agreement, opening the door for the federal government to step in and force cuts. The bureau has not yet taken that step.

“In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” Tanya Trujillo, an assistant secretary in the Interior Department, said in a statement last week.

Drought has threatened the water levels of the Colorado River, which serves roughly 40 million people in the West and supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity, including agriculture and other commerce.

The river also feeds into Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the country. Water levels in Nevada’s Lake Mead hit historic lows in June.

Across the region, dry riverbeds mark the landscape and formerly productive farmland lies fallow because of inadequate irrigation.

The proposals are part of a long history of Nevada staying on top of urban water use, said Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates in Colorado. The nonprofit conducts water use analysis across the Western U.S. 

"Las Vegas has been at the forefront of urban conservation for quite a few years,” Miller said. “The river as a whole is entering a crisis and it’s clear we are using more water than the Colorado River can provide.”

Southern Nevada’s water use declined 26% between 2002 and 2021 despite 750,000 new residents and nearly 40 million annual visitors, according to the water district.

Tick Segerblom, program director for Las Vegas Water Defenders, which works to improve water conservation and increase sustainability, called the proposals “good but symbolic.” He said water officials should increase the cost of water in addition to charging fees for excessive use.

“The reality is, we have to raise the price of water and also make it more progressive,” Segerblom said. He suggested the fee for excessive water use should be $100 for every 1,000 gallons used over the seasonal limit, instead of $9, with the extra money going toward water-saving measures.

In 2003, the Southern Nevada Water Authority banned front-yard lawns, and this year any grass, including in backyards, was prohibited.

If outdoor water features at new hotels are banned, it won't necessarily have a negative effect on tourism, said David G. Schwartz, gaming historian and professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

“Right now, there aren’t many new hotels being planned, so even if a ban was enacted, it may not have a large, immediate impact,” he said. “I don’t think the Bellagio is going anywhere.”

Golf courses in southern Nevada, currently limited to 6.3 acre-feet of water per irrigated acre annually, would be reduced to 4 acre-feet under the water district's proposal.

By 2026, decorative grass in streetscapes, medians, parking lots, traffic circles and other areas will have to be removed under state law. It would save about 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, officials said.

“For the city to continue to thrive, these are necessary policies,” said Sean McKenna, executive director of the division of hydrologic sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, which researches global climate change, water quality and availability, air quality and the sustainability of desert lands.

“It’s a reality that southern Nevada is facing," he said. "It’s not news to anyone that Nevada is a desert and we rely on the river and this is a part of the country where people want to move.”