The first time I saw the Bellagio fountains, I was walking the Las Vegas Strip back to my hotel. I wasn't looking for the fountains. I barely knew they existed. Then the show began.
I froze. I stayed, mesmerized, for the next half-hour. Eventually, as the fountains cascaded to Andrea Bocelli music I didn't even like, I fought the urge to grab strangers and shout, "Look at the fountains! Look how beautiful they are!"
The instant the show ended, I felt guilty. Here in the West you can't view any lavish display of water without worrying: Is that a waste of our precious natural resources? Such carping comes especially easily in Las Vegas, a city that lives to invite envious disapproval: If Las Vegas were your relative, it would be the cousin who quits his job to audition for American Idol, or the aunt who says, "I'm running off with Philippe, my Pilates instructor."
In Spanish, Las Vegas means "the meadows," and the city began thanks to a spring-fed oasis that served travelers on the Old Spanish Trail. Meadows or no, this is a dry place. Las Vegas' 4-inch annual rainfall makes Phoenix (8 in.) and Tucson (12 in.) seem lush.
But on the Strip, scarcity seems forgotten.
The Bellagio's 1,000 fountains dance across an 8½-acre lake. "The most powerful ones are the Xtreme shooters," says Curtis Hunton, who runs the show. "They can go 460 feet." Inside the resort, Cirque du Soleil's O plunges acrobats into a 1.5 million-gallon pool. The Mirage has its dolphin habitat, the new Wynn its waterfalls cascading down an artificial mountain. In Las Vegas, water is like a magician's cape or a showgirl's spangles: It teases, it seduces, it fools.
Yes, fools. Fountains and dolphins notwithstanding, the resorts of the Strip "only consume 2 percent of the community's water supply," says Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. There is a story of eau in Las Vegas, but not the one you think.
Residential needs ― people taking showers and watering plants ― account for about 70 percent of the water used in Las Vegas. That use has shot up with the region's phenomenal population growth: 1 million residents added since 1980, with forecasts for 1.5 million more in the next 25 years. Las Vegas gets most of its water from the Colorado River, and a bit from underground aquifers: Both sources are fully booked. Add to this the interior West's recent five-year drought.
In short, Las Vegas is facing a water crisis, and its response has been surprising. Leave the Strip and drive out to, say, Summerlin. You'll see rows of new homes whose front yards are planted with desert landscaping ― lawns are now allowed only in the backyards, where people actually use them. The Southern Nevada Water Authority also pays homeowners to replace existing lawns with xeriscaping and supplies plans for those low-water gardens. A new Water Smart Home program encourages developers to build homes with efficient irrigation systems and water-thrifty appliances.
"There's a wave of humanity washing over the desert West," Mulroy explains. "And we need to come to terms with where we live. Most desert communities have lived in defiance of the desert. That's not sustainable."
The sudden display of civic maturity is a little shocking, as if your aunt's Pilates fling became a long, happy marriage. But, says Mulroy, "this is a very pragmatic city. People don't want to be told you can't do something. But if you tell them they have to do something differently, they will listen."
Back at the Bellagio, the fountains are splashing to "Hey, Big Spender." I want to reassure spectators that they can view the show without guilt, but they're already swaying in time to the dancing water. "People really get into the groove here," says Hunton. "They just love water, especially in the desert. And this brings water to life."