LAS VEGAS — Q: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
A: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Q: Waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
A: I was misinformed.
THIS exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in the 1942 film "Casablanca" might stand as a perverse prelude to the 4,000 newcomers per month who settle here in America's most arid desert. With dozens of casino fountains bursting forth from scores of man-made lakes, residents might not realize water is a scarce commodity.
Enter Jim White. Under an afternoon sun so scorching that even the whiptail geckos keep themselves off the pavement, Mr. White is on the lookout for water abuse.
A certified agent of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, White is one of a small troop of hydro-Sherlock Holmeses who patrol the streets of this desert metropolis.
The task of conserving water here is daunting. The annual rainfall averages only 4 inches. Moreover, with its casino aquaculture and 30 million tourists, Las Vegas uses three times more water than do other US cities in arid regions.
While conditions in Las Vegas may be extreme, the city - and its Conservation Awareness Patrolman (CAP) program - is representative of a growing trend throughout the West: enforcing water conservation with a gentler hand. Indeed, municipal governments in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California are increasingly using incentive-based ideas to partner with citizens.
"All across the West, local governments are discovering that voluntary conservation - not strict, top-down mandates - are the way of the future," says Rich Golb, former president of the Northern California Water Association, now a water consultant. "They are finding that individual residents taking steps to help conserve the West's most precious resource are paying bigger dividends than all the tiered-pricing schemes they have dreamt up in the past."
In Las Vegas, that means that the CAP program is more of a hands-on, education program than a hard-nosed, enforcement agency.
"We have found that if you run around town and issue citations to people and drag them into court, that slaps them on the wrist but doesn't help dry up the streets and save the water," says Stephanie Stallworth, spokeswoman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "But if we help them fix their broken sprinkler head or fix their water timers, they are more receptive."
What a water cop must do
CAP cops have three duties:
*They gently inform scofflaws of a local ordinance prohibiting outdoor water use between noon and 7 p.m. (If lawbreakers repeatedly refuse to comply, penalties include court appearances and a fine of as much as $1,000.)
*They offer assistance and advice on how to control water usage.
*They inform new residents of programs designed to offer cash to those willing to replace conventional turf laws with water-saving plants and shrubs.
"In this heat, half of all water sprayed on plants evaporates before it gets to the roots," says White from the driver's side of his Chevy Astro patrol van. "All these little infractions really add up."
He notes that Las Vegas has been America's fastest-growing metropolis for 60 years, and that some 65 percent of all water use goes to residents, adding, "With so much water running down sidewalks and streets, there is the potential that 30 percent of our water supply is being wasted."
On a recent afternoon here, that's exactly what White saw. Following a trickle of water several blocks to a residential house, he discovered a sprinkler running at 2 p.m. Homeowner Barry Stanford said the timer-clock had been busted since a recent power outage and welcomed White's help in setting it right.
"I'm glad he showed up to help me fix it," says Mr. Stanford. "It's good having these guys around. People know they can get help if they need it and that they'll get ticketed if they flout the law. It's a good combination."
Before leaving, White handed Stanford two, colorful brochures that encourage a host of alternatives to his turf lawn, which requires 90 inches of irrigation water per year. The brochures pictures courtyards and gardens filled with plants that need little water, such as acacia trees, desert willows, primrose jasmines, and lilac vines. A 2.5-acre demonstration garden, which residents may visit, displays the possibilities.
The brochures also discuss how to save cash. A so-called "xeriscape" of low-water-use plants saves 60 to 80 percent of the typical water bill (about $30 per month), one brochure suggests. In addition, it adds that residents can get as much as $400 to replace their lawns with more drought-resistant plants.
Apart from the financial considerations, many Western cities are also trying to highlight local identity and aesthetics. Increasingly, they are seeking out the botanical signatures that make them unique - for instance, the saguaro cactus of Phoenix, or the feather-duster palms of Los Angeles.
"We're trying to show folks that we can establish a unique look for Las Vegas that is instantly recognizable," says White.
What says "Las Vegas" to him? The Joshua tree, several varieties of mesquite, and yuccas like the Mojave shrub and the Spanish dagger.
"Folks are beginning to realize they can have a nicer and even more appropriate look that will make it a signature of Las Vegas," he says.