In Las Vegas, water is like a magician's cape or a showgirl's spangles: It teases, it seduces, it fools.
The first time I saw the Bellagio fountains, I was walking theLas Vegas Strip back to my hotel. I wasn't looking for thefountains. 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 Ididn'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 youcan't view any lavish display of water without worrying: Is that awaste of our precious natural resources? Such carping comesespecially easily in Las Vegas, a city that lives to invite enviousdisapproval: If Las Vegas were your relative, it would be thecousin who quits his job to audition for American Idol, or the aunt who says, "I'm running off withPhilippe, my Pilates instructor."
In Spanish, Las Vegas means "the meadows," and the city beganthanks to a spring-fed oasis that served travelers on the OldSpanish 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-acrelake. "The most powerful ones are the Xtreme shooters," says CurtisHunton, who runs the show. "They can go 460 feet." Inside theresort, Cirque du Soleil's O plunges acrobats into a 1.5 million-gallon pool. TheMirage has its dolphin habitat, the new Wynn its waterfallscascading down an artificial mountain. In Las Vegas, water is likea magician's cape or a showgirl's spangles: It teases, it seduces,it fools.
Yes, fools. Fountains and dolphins notwithstanding, the resortsof the Strip "only consume 2 percent of the community's watersupply," says Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern NevadaWater Authority. There is a story of eau in Las Vegas, but not theone you think.
Residential needs ― people taking showers and wateringplants ― account for about 70 percent of the water used inLas Vegas. That use has shot up with the region's phenomenalpopulation growth: 1 million residents added since 1980, withforecasts for 1.5 million more in the next 25 years. Las Vegas getsmost of its water from the Colorado River, and a bit fromunderground aquifers: Both sources are fully booked. Add to thisthe interior West's recent five-year drought.
In short, Las Vegas is facing a water crisis, and its responsehas been surprising. Leave the Strip and drive out to, say,Summerlin. You'll see rows of new homes whose front yards areplanted with desert landscaping ― lawns are now allowed onlyin the backyards, where people actually use them. The SouthernNevada Water Authority also pays homeowners to replace existinglawns with xeriscaping and supplies plans for those low-watergardens. A new Water Smart Home program encourages developers tobuild homes with efficient irrigation systems and water-thriftyappliances.
"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 ifyour aunt's Pilates fling became a long, happy marriage. But, saysMulroy, "this is a very pragmatic city. People don't want to betold you can't do something. But if you tell them they have to dosomething differently, they will listen."
Back at the Bellagio, the fountains are splashing to "Hey, BigSpender." I want to reassure spectators that they can view the showwithout guilt, but they're already swaying in time to the dancingwater. "People really get into the groove here," says Hunton. "Theyjust love water, especially in the desert. And this brings water tolife."