Winning the water wars
Winning the water wars With better landscaping practices and improved water-saving technologies, casinos are doing their part to conserve more water in the arid West
Water is the new oil, pundits say. As an increasingly scarce resource, it's already sparking political and legal battles across the United States This is especially true in the American West, with its wide arid spaces.
Perhaps not coincidentally, that's where many of the nation's casinos are-in southern Nevada, the Lake Tahoe area, and on Indian reservations. The frontier mentality, a bit of the Wild West, still lingers in this part of the country. Whether it's a housing tract or a vacation resort, the attitude is full speed ahead: "Build it now and the water will come."
Nowhere is this more evident than in Las Vegas. In a city founded on fantasy, million-dollar homes front manmade lakes. Dozens of golf courses glisten with greenery. Rivers, fountains, and waterfalls flow day and night.
A recent travel supplement called this "the luxury of liquid" and described "the over-the-top water elements that resorts have developed in ever-escalating efforts to lure visitors." More bluntly, urban historian Mike Davis has called it "hydro-fetishism."
The situation in Las Vegas is symbolic of the whole. Nine of the 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas are west of the Mississippi. Vegas is number one, increasing 83 percent from 1990 to 2000. Water use is noticeably higher in the West than in the East. Residents use 337 gallons of water a day in Clark County, Nevada, and 288 in Salt Lake vs. 194 in Cook County, Illinois, and 175 in Miami-Dade.
Meanwhile, the region is facing a five-year drought-the worst since 1590-94, when Elizabeth I ruled England and conquistadors roamed the Southwest. The Rockies snowpack is roughly half its normal depth, and Lake Mead, the reservoir for Las Vegas, is down 85 feet. Southern Nevada gets almost 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, but neighboring states are angling for bigger shares.
A federal study found that seven of the West's biggest cities-Las Vegas, Reno, Albuquerque, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Flagstaff-are "highly likely" to experience water conflicts by 2025. The same applies to two major waterways: the Colorado and the Rio Grande.
The problem is serious, clearly, but people are starting to face it. Regional water authorities have raised rates to discourage use and have sought additional sources. Just as important, they've implemented tough conservation measures. For instance, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has assigned customers to watering groups, restricted turf in new developments, and hiked fees for wasting water.
Casinos do conservationDespite their lavish waterworks, Las Vegas's casinos aren't the worst offenders. Hotel-casinos use only 7 percent of the area's water, though their visitors average 14 percent of the population. Eighty percent of this is used indoors, then purified and recycled into Lake Mead, so it doesn't affect the total consumed.
The casinos are doing what they can to aid the community and themselves. "We've been involved in water and energy conservation," said Alan Feldman, senior VP of public affairs at MGM Mirage, "dating back virtually 30 years now. This is not something that we started this month or last month in response to the current drought."
MGM Mirage and Caesars Entertainment (which Harrah's is in the process of buying) are among the companies touting their conservation efforts. Most of their facilities have installed water-saving toilets, faucets, and showerheads. Some are changing the room linen and serving water with meals only upon request.
But doing routine things like the laundry efficiently isn't enough.
"That's not where the water really gets saved in this community," said Feldman. "Where it really gets saved is on turf."
Inventorying a property for places to remove turf is what Tracy Bower, senior public information coordinator for the SNWA, recommends. "We know that for every square foot of grass that is replaced with water-smart landscaping, the community saves 55 gallons of water per year," she said. Many plants are "very inviting and very lush-looking but use just a fraction of the water that grass requires."
The MGM Grand, Las Vegas' largest hotel, has converted more than half its acreage to desert landscape, or xeriscape. Eighty-five percent of it was turf in 1995. It uses organic topsoil such as peat moss to retain moisture better.
To irrigate their grounds more efficiently, many hotel-casinos have switched from sprinkler to drip or bubbler systems. The bigger properties have also deployed computerized irrigation control systems. This technology monitors the weather conditions-e.g., temperature, humidity, and wind-and adjusts the watering accordingly.
Cooling towers and treatment plantsAnother way casinos contribute is by upgrading their air-conditioning systems, which use water to dissipate excess heat. "The biggest technology that we've seen them install are improvements to cooling towers," said Bower, "which basically run the air-conditioning." The advances save water by reusing it, minimizing its evaporation, and reducing chemical buildup that must be washed away.
In 1993 MGM Mirage went further by building a $2.5-million water reclamation plant between the Mirage and Treasure Island. Using reverse osmosis, this plant purifies "gray" water from the hotels and contaminated water from an aquifer beneath them. The water is then used in the Mirage's volcano and Treasure Island's lagoon.
"We're actually looking at the possibility of another reverse-osmosis plant," said Feldman. Whether it saves the company money is beside the point. "It's not the greatest economic thing to do, but it is a responsible, proper thing to do."
As for the elaborate displays in front of some hotels, things are changing. Properties are redesigning their fountains and waterfalls to reuse water or draw it from wells. In a couple places they've even turned off or removed a feature.
"By and large, resorts have done very well at creating the illusion that they are using a lot of water to produce a lush-looking atmosphere," said Bower, "but they really don't use that much." When you consider the jobs and income this water generates, that almost seems reasonable.
Indians show the wayMandated by their culture to preserve the environment, some tribal operations have gone even further than their Las Vegas counterparts. They build conservation into their casinos from the ground up.
As one example, the Barona Band of Mission Indians in Lakeside, Calif. built a wastewater treatment plant 10 years ago, long before the present drought. It replaced that with a larger plant five years ago at a cost of $3.5 million to $4 million.
Anticipating a federal requirement, the tribe added a runoff recovery system in 2001. Water that falls onto the buildings and pavement is channeled through storm drains into reservoirs. There it's mixed with reclaimed water and used for irrigation and other non-potable functions.
Besides recovering rainwater, Barona is pushing the envelope in other ways. For instance, it's putting sulfur dioxide in the water to break up the clay-like earth so it holds more moisture. It's also investigating methods used in the Middle East-such as hydrogel, a polymer that increases the soil's water-carrying capacity.
The key to conservation, according to Barona's people, is to build it in from the beginning, not add it as an afterthought. By planning ahead, casinos can protect the environment while meeting their business objectives. "You can effectively live together in a very, very harmonious operation if you try to blend the two," said Curt Crook, director of water operations and construction management. "I think it has a very positive result."
The tribe's managers invite anyone interested in conservation technology to visit the Barona Valley Ranch for a tour. "We want to take our environmentally-friendly policy forward and share it with the rest of the casino operations," said Crook, "because it only helps all of us in the long run."
Casinos implement improved energy saving practices Energy shortages aren't as critical as water shortages in the West, but they're still a concern for casino managers. A typical hotel-casino uses as much electricity as 10,000 homes. Urban historian Mike Davis has called paved-over Las Vegas a "heat island," with nighttime temperatures are often hotter than the surrounding desert.
The same factors that caused California's energy crisis in 2001 rippled through the West. In response, Nevada Power raised the rates it charged its casino clients some 65 percent from Sept. 2000 to Sept. 2003. In turn, many Las Vegas casinos introduced energy surcharges of $2.25 to $3.27 a night.
They also began taking steps to reduce their energy costs. Some casinos reduced their exterior lighting and installed low-wattage bulbs. Others implemented "smart" technology: photoelectric sensors that react to the ambient light, thermostats that set room temperatures efficiently, and motion sensors that turn out lights automatically when people exit.
Waste not, want not
Chumash turn sewage into savings
The recently opened Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif., is a good example of designing a facility with conservation in mind. Among its features, the A/C towers pump cooled water throughout the casino. Drought-tolerant plants and native landscaping decorate the grounds.
In building the casino, the Chumash tribe faced a challenge with the local sewer district. The reservation used the district's services, but the new casino needed four to five times the previous capacity. When the district balked at providing it, the tribe decided to build its own sewage treatment plant.
Steve Davis, a principal at Summit Architects Collaborative and project manager for the job, explained how this helps the environment. "Because of the high level of treatment at this wastewater treatment plant, that water can be used, recycled, for irrigating the property and for flushing toilets in the casino building," he said. "So we will have very, very little effluent that actually goes back into the creek.
"It's good to do environmentally," added Davis. "It makes sense economically, because you spend less money on water. The public benefits because it reduces the risk of groundwater contamination."