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Q&A Series with Tom Perrigo, Chief Sustainability Officer of Las Vegas, NV

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This month we are highlighting the challenges cities face when it comes to water. In the second part of our water series, Tom Perrigo, Las Vegas’ Chief Sustainability Officer, tells us how Las Vegas is adapting and investing in new infrastructure to address community water needs. 

unnamedCan you provide a brief background on Las Vegas’ historical approach to water conservation and what some of the major accomplishments have been?

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet-per year to which was later divided by the Boulder Canyon Project Act (that authorized Hoover Dam). 300,000 acre feet per year was allocated to Nevada, 2.8 million to Arizona and 4.4 million to California. At the time, Nevada’s negotiators viewed 300,000 AFY as more than a reasonable amount; Southern Nevada had no significant agricultural or industrial users, and groundwater seemed plentiful. Over time, the Bureau of Reclamation constructed major dams, canals and aqueducts.  The 243,000 square mile Colorado River Basin now supports more than 33 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico.

In the face of unprecedented drought that has impacted many communities across the American West, Las Vegas has proven its resilience. Over the past three years, the region’s purveyor, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), reached a number of major milestones, including saving more than 40 billion gallons of water over the last decade. SNWA has led efforts to insulate the community from drought, including the construction of a third intake to draw high quality water deeper from within Lake Mead and a new connection to join water intakes together to allow continued water delivery to water treatment facilities, which will be completed in 2015. Southern Nevada reclaims wastewater through return-flow credits and direct reuse. Approximately 200,000 acre-feet are returned to the Colorado River each year for return-flow credits. Nearly all of the total wastewater flows returned for treatment are reused in Southern Nevada through direct reuse and Colorado River return-flow credits.

SNWA’s conservation program has been most notable; Southern Nevadans reduced water consumption by 33 percent, while the population has grown 25 percent in the last decade. This is due to SNWA’s aggressive conservation campaign and one of the nation’s most extensive water reuse programs. SNWA engages the community in conservation practices through a combination of incentives, education, tiered rates and restrictions that reduce per-person water consumption.

Cities across the country take various approaches to get their citizens to conserve more water—education, incentives, and regulations. What has Las Vegas done and what strategies tend to work the best?

Southern Nevada has been a nationwide leader in water conservation. In the verification of Las Vegas’ STAR application, the City received 14.5 out of 15 available credits for Community Water Systems, 17 out of 20 available credits for Water in the Environment, and Innovation and Process credit which reflected success and prioritization of water resources.

Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), operates one of the largest and most aggressive water conservation programs in the nation. This program includes a combination of education, incentives, regulation and water pricing. Because the biggest potential for water savings comes from reductions in consumptive water demands, primarily in the form of outdoor water uses such as landscape irrigation, the majority of conservation tools are designed to achieve results in these areas.

  • Education is an integral element of SNWA’s water conservation strategy. It includes both formal and informal education, from tips and tutorials to improve efficiency, to class offerings on water-smart landscaping practices for both resident and landscape professionals
  • The SNWA operates one of the largest incentive programs in the nation. Since 2000, SNWA has invested more than $200 million in incentive programs, reducing demand by more than 10 billion gallons annually.
  • Through collaboration, SNWA member agencies and Clark County have adopted a suite of land use codes, ordinances and water use policies to ensure more efficient use of water in Southern Nevada. These include time-of-day and day-of-week watering restrictions, water waste restrictions and limitations on the installation of new turf in residential and commercial development.
  • SNWA member agencies implement conservation rate structures that charge higher rates for water as use increases. These rate structures encourage efficiency, without jeopardizing water affordability for essential uses.

What will be the biggest water infrastructure needs for Las Vegas in the coming decades?

The biggest water infrastructure needs will likely be related to redundant supply for Southern Nevada. Given SNWA has completed a third intake deep under Lake Mead and a new water treatment plant and pumping station have been completed to insulate Southern Nevada from drought and loss of intakes at higher elevations, a groundwater development project has been proposed that would convey water from Eastern Nevada to Lake Mead by pipeline. Should the groundwater be needed in case of drought impacts to the Colorado River, the project would be developed to provide flexibility, meet demand, and reduce reliance on Southern Nevada’s limited allocation from the river.

Las Vegas has been proactive with stormwater management, installing green infrastructure throughout the city to help alleviate the problem. Can you talk about the City’s approach to green infrastructure, the steps you’ve taken to date, and plans for the future?

The City and regional stakeholders have worked to expand green infrastructure throughout Southern Nevada to help mitigate the urban heat island effect. While water use is a concern with respect to urban forestry, native and adaptive species use and landscape standards for parking lots and perimeters of property are promoted and required by the City’s Unified Development Code.

Green space additions have also been made through the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, which helps fund new park construction from the proceeds of land sales within a land disposal boundary around the city. Tremendous investment has been made by all local jurisdictions to green infrastructure – one notable project is the Clark County Wetlands, which not only help with stormwater management, but also aid in localized cooling and recreational open space. The City just hired a new Urban Forester and will be working on an Urban Forestry Management Plan in the future to help increase the City’s canopy coverage.

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