American West using less water despite more people

Oh the horror

Water usage has dropped steadily for years in the American West and California, despite many more people and increased agriculture. This includes Las Vegas and its casinos with water fountains. Oh the horror, what horrendous water pigs they are, some howl. Except it’s not true. The fountain water is reused. In fact, all indoor water in Vegas is cleaned up and reused. It’s been toilet-to-tap for years.

Conservation is working. People are learning to use less water. More people does not inexorably mean increased water usage. Yes, this is and will continue to be an ongoing process.

Despite the rhetoric of imminent doom, the math is inescapable. From 2002 to 2013, the greater Las Vegas metro area grew by 34 percent to a population of more than 2 million people. During that same period, its use of Colorado River water—its primary source of supply—dropped by 26 percent.

The same is true of California agriculture.

When Bart Fisher returned home from college in 1972, his family’s alfalfa fields outside Blythe in California’s southeastern desert produced 7 tons of alfalfa per acre. Today, the Fishers get 10 tons per acre from the same land. They do it with the same amount of water as a much younger Fisher and his family used four decades ago.

In cities too, water use is going down. Every one of the region’s major urban areas that once depended on unsustainable groundwater mining has turned the corner. Conservation and shifts to relatively more sustainable sources of supplies have led to aquifers beneath Los Angeles, the sunbelt of Central Arizona, and Las Vegas that have stabilized or in some cases are rising.