What Happens in Vegas Can’t Stay in Vegas: Strategies for Climate Adaption by Water Utilities

As climate change becomes more extreme, the way we collect water for our utilities from the natural water supply will change.  Already, with less snow pack in mountains, utilities that capture their water supply from gradual snow melt are impacted by changing patterns of precipitation. I spoke recently with Mary Ann Dickinson, president of the Chicago-based global non-profit Alliance for Water Efficiency that commits to the efficient and sustainable use of water. (Disclosure: I am a member and served as a director.)   It advocates for water-efficient products and programs and provides information and assistance on water-conservation efforts.  Mary Ann and I discussed climate change and the North American water supply.

These utilities and companies can take their cue from Las Vegas, which Mary Ann praises as an excellent example of adapting to climate change when it comes to water.  Substantial population growth there moved Las Vegas’ water source long ago to snow pack melt water contained by Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir in maximum water capacity. It’s located on the Colorado River about 30 miles southeast of the city.


  • Las Vegas recycles 94 percent of the water that goes down drains. It's treated and returned to Lake Mead, Nev., via the Las Vegas Wash, an “urban” river. This flow of water exists because of the urban population in Southern Nevada. It comprises urban runoff, shallow groundwater, reclaimed water and stormwater.
  • Recycling water is important to the city because it earns so-called “Return Flow Credits” for water pumped back to Lake Mead. For every gallon the city returns to the lake, it can withdraw one gallon.
  • Recycled water comprises 40 percent of Las Vegas’ water resources.
  • Water features on The Strip recycle all their water, so the amount consumed essentially is water lost to evaporation.
  • Most Las Vegas golf courses irrigate with recycled water that’s been treated but not returned to Lake Mead.

Understandably, Las Vegas is parsimonious about water since one of its major water intakes could be above the water level of Lake Mead within a few years.  The water level has been dropping rapidly, and a 50-50 chance exists that Lake Mead will go dry by 2021.

Las Vegas exemplifies those cities where utilities’ major adaptation will be locating water supplies when their primary water sources aren’t available any longer.  Utilities that have faced this predicament have turned to groundwater, water recycling, reducing usage and ensuring that less used water ends up in a salt source, where it is unrecoverable (except by evapotranspiration).

It’s rare, however, for a utility to think long term and consider these options as part of a climate-adapted scenario. Traditionally, utilities have built and managed fixed infrastructure based on fixed resources.

Mary Ann offers these tips for climate adaption in water utilities:

  1. Consider your options: Increase the balance of the ways you get water in your portfolio by adopting a set of options that includes recycling and water conservation
  2. Raise prices to shake up complacency: Rates haven’t kept pace with the price of maintaining aging and expanding infrastructure.  You need to engage in serious conversations with your water purchasers about how, over time, these infrastructure issues must be resolved. This means counseling that water prices must reflect the future and not just current reality.
  3. Acknowledge the repercussions of water conservation: Utilities blame water conservation efforts by consumers for their headaches. That’s because under current pricing, less water used by consumers translates into less revenue. Regulators need to allow utilities to move to service modality from unit block pricing.  Even with growth, though, utilities aren’t seeing demand increase. So they’re not increasing revenue because water usage per capita has decreased with codes, standards and conservation.
  4. Partner with large consumers. Reach out to large water users. Help those industrial users to become positive examples in their community in terms of water conservation. Business loves recognition for its good work.

As Mary Ann noted, more and more communities and utilities are going to have to grapple with these issues so they might begin now.  That way, they have better odds of succeeding – like Las Vegas!