People, planet, and the path ahead
Children run through a fountain of water at the Red Ridge Park in Las Vegas, in this 2013 photo. Las Vegas collects and recycles much of the water it uses, including both from indoor drains and from some outdoor fountains and golf courses.
Julie Jacobson/AP/File | Caption

In arid Southwest, cities expand but use less water

A path to progress

Phoenix reduced its residential water consumption in the past decade despite a 23 percent rise in population. Las Vegas recycles water from indoor drains and outdoor fountains.

Mat Baroudi used to have a backyard of grass, consuming 55 gallons of water per square foot. Now it’s stone floor with a gazebo and a fire pit in the center. Jasmine, flowering plum, and Australian bottle trees dot the yard. Two tortoises, Blaze and Dmitri, bask in what passes for early morning cool.

For Mr. Baroudi, the benefits are many: Lower water bills, conserving water, reducing waste, and no lawn mowing. On top of that, the local water authority here in Las Vegas pays people $2 per square foot to replace their grass lawns with desert landscaping. By his reckoning that can cover about half the cost for the conversion.

Baroudi, born in Uganda and educated in England with an accent to match, runs his own landscaping company named, cheekily, An English Gardener. He’s been involved with landscaping ever since maintaining the grounds at his English boarding school.

His landscaping work in Las Vegas is far different. Now he tears out the lawns that never had much rationale to exist here in the first place, and swaps them for desert landscapes.

“If you look around at the landscaping in Las Vegas, you’ll see a lot of desertscape,” he says. “It’s a lot of rock, cacti, and various plants that don’t use a lot of water.”

Across the West, cities may still have a long way to go in adapting to hotter, and often drier, climate realities. But progress is under way with conservation and water reuse on the rise.

Not that everyone wants to trade in their patches of green.

Baroudi, for one, looks askance when he sees water flowing from a neighbor’s lawn into the gutter.

“People come from wherever in the States, and they’re used to having acres of grass from wherever they came from,” Baroudi says. But often lawns in Vegas are barely big enough to stretch your arms in. “So why do you have that? Everyone knows that [Lake Mead] is low and water is an issue here.”

Investing in lower water use

For the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) spending money on lawn overhauls makes sense, given that it’s especially vulnerable to water shortages. So far, 52,000 homes have participated in the program.

“The water that we use outdoors is what we don’t get back again,” says Bronson Mack, a spokesman for SNWA.

Las Vegas isn’t the only city offering incentives. California has a statewide program offering $2 per square foot to replace turf and $100 for installing more efficient toilets. The Salt River Project, an Arizona utility, credits homeowners in cities such as Glendale ($750), Scottsdale ($1,500) and Peoria ($1,650) for landscape conversions and other efficiency or water recycling upgrades. Albuquerque pays people $1 per square foot for ditching their lawns.

Las Vegas is also recycling water, spurred in part by a regional accord that allows it to take more from the Colorado River water if it puts some back into the system. SNWA recycles nearly all the indoor water – think toilets, sinks and showers – that makes up 40 percent of its total consumption. That iconic Bellagio fountain on the Las Vegas strip? It’s also recycled water. The green golf courses that emerge from the Las Vegas desert? More recycled water.

“That helps us to stretch our existing supplies,” Mr. Mack says.

The Colorado River Basin spans much of the American Southwest – and the river represents a vital water supply for the region. Stories in this series of articles were reported in cities highlighted on this map, as well as in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is in the greater Phoenix area.
Jacob Turcotte/staff | Caption

In Phoenix, Greg Peterson is watering a peach tree that needs some love in his front garden. An urban farming advocate, Mr. Peterson lives on a block flush with green lawns. Not his fault, he says – the neighborhood is part of what used to be agricultural land and has valuable water rights, keeping his and his neighbors’ front yards a healthy hue.

“I am a farmer, I consider myself a farmer. But I’m on a street with 22 other houses and none of them are farmers. Pretty much, they’re farming grass,” Mr. Peterson says.

Peterson practices “permaculture” at his urban farm, meaning in part that everything that goes into the system remains in the system. Stormwater and “greywater” from non-kitchen sinks, showers, and washers help him grow 80 fruit trees that range from papaya to mango, guava to watermelon. He does this by running a tiny canal from his storm gutter, rerouting the wastewater from an outdoor sink, and harvesting rainfall in a tank.

“Our single biggest problem in our culture is waste. We need to figure out how to reduce and eliminate waste because we throw so many things away, and there’s energy in those things,” Peterson says.

Phoenix actually has in many ways been doing just that.

In Phoenix, progress and opportunity

It has reduced overall residential water consumption in the past decade despite a 23 percent population growth that’s seen its suburbs sprawl into former farms and pastures, according to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. But Mayor Greg Stanton, who credits Peterson for helping raise the profile of water recycling in Phoenix, says he thinks the city can do better. He pushed for expanding greywater use during his 2015 re-election campaign, and now wants to update more infrastructure to decentralize water treatment, allowing for easier reuse.

“The more we can recycle water, if you will, the better it is long-term for this community. So we need to invest – it’s not going to be inexpensive – we need to invest in the infrastructure to better use reclaimed water,” Mayor Stanton says.

His comment is one indicator of how, for cities, the future is not just about conservation – finding ways to use less water – it's also about recycling more of what’s already flowing in their drains and gutters. ​

California is investing in the idea. It’s funding an expansion of a $3.5 million wastewater treatment plant at Stanford University that can recycle eight gallons of water per minute. That’s a small amount by most standards. But the system has significantly reduced energy use and carbon dioxide by relying on microorganisms that don’t require oxygen to filter impurities in the water and produce methane that’s later used as energy. Membranes then snag the larger particles.

Sebastien Tilmans explains the wastewater treatment facility at the Codiga Resource Recovery Center at Stanford University in California in this 2016 photo. Tilmans is the director of operations at the center, which is exploring ways to recycle and reuse water to buffer water supplies strained by drought and population growth.
Zack Colman/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

Many wastewater treatment firms have resisted such a so-called “purple pipe” to decentralize treatment. They worry that removing water from the current pipe system will leave behind more solid particles that degrade infrastructure, adding to maintenance costs. Municipal water regulators also are hesitant to approve new projects financed by raising customers’ rates.

Helping cities keep what they have

The counter argument, though, is that the status quo cannot hold and that cities will need to make tough financial decisions to boost water supplies. That’s the view of Dick Luthy, who co-directs Stanford University’s Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure, or ReNUWIt, where he is working on technology spread deployment of stormwater and recycled water.

Mr. Luthy says the heavy rainstorms that climate scientists expect to accompany climate change (alongside frequent droughts) could be a boon for city water supplies. The trick is to help cities better manage flash downpours, reducing waste and improving urban flood management at the same time.

He’s helping Los Angeles guide stormwater to a detention pool where it can store more than 290 million gallons of water (900 acre feet) before filtering out pollutants and metals through a membrane. Then the water would be fed to recharge zones in the surrounding area to replenish underground aquifers.  

It’s a big project. But as with other moves by cities, the steps don’t all need to be on this scale. Luthy says water-recycling projects can be small, some fitting in places like grassy boulevard medians.

“The sad truth is we can’t conserve our way out of this,” Luthy says. “Everyone has to do their part.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a fellowship at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, at Stanford University.

This is the second article in a series on solving water challenges in the American West.

Part 1: West's challenge is still water scarcity, wet winter or not

Part 2: In arid Southwest, cities expand but use less water 

Part 3: America's biggest water users – farmers – learn to use less of it

Part 4: How water swaps help the West manage a precious resource

Part 5Why solar panels bloom in Southwest's land of hydropower