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PERRY, THE WATER COP OF LAS VEGAS (43 photos) Send this reportage Send this reportage
Think of Las Vegas and most people visualise gambling and money. Nowadays, one of the main issues in Las Vegas is however water. Kevin Perry, water cop in Las Vegas, knows all about it. In his air-conditioned jeep, his laptop shows locations where in the city water is being wasted. "This is a school I visited two weeks ago," says Perry, while he locates the school on Google maps. "The sprinkler system should be repaired by now. Let’s take a look."
© R. de Hommel./
Categories: Economy, Environment, Geography, Sciences & nature, Men Interest, News, Social
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Although Perry has no problem with being called a water cop, he sees himself more as a teacher. The educational part of his work is not easy, according to him. The inhabitants of Las Vegas are migrants from all over the U.S.A. Many people from the eastern part of the country, where rainfall is common, are used to green lawns. Perry: `With some of these people, you have to pull the lawn mower out of their dead hands, so to say. But slowly, the attitude of the people is changing."

Such a change of attitude is absolutely necessary, says Patricia Mulroy, Director of the powerful Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). "I am worried about the availability of water in the western U.S.A. Currently we are building a third water inlet in the Lake Mead water reservoir now, in order to be able to keep on providing Las Vegas with drinking water. The decrease of the water level in Lake Mead is so high that we can no longer use the other two water inlets anymore, they are too high above the water level."

The western part of the U.S.A. has been suffering from a massive drought for a decade now. For years already, the U.S.A. consumes more water from the Colorado than the river receives from melting mountain snow. The Colorado is fed by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, but because of climate, there is less and less rainfall. The southwestern part of the United States can only afford this over-consumption of river water, because in the fifties and sixties several huge dams were built in the Colorado, creating large reservoirs. The largest artificial lakes are Lake Powell in the middle of the desert on the edge of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Both lakes have to cope with roughly ten percent of surface evaporation. Lake Powell is now at about one-third empty, the water level in Lake Mead has even been halved. Never before since the construction of the reservoir the water level was so low. Old jetty sites and marinas for tourists are now situated tens of meters higher and hundreds of meters further inland from the lake shore, compared to their earlier location.

"If we don’t undertake action now, the water reservoirs will dry out completely," says Bradley Udall, a scientist at the University of Boulder. According to him, there are clear signs that climate change is actually taking place. "The four major droughts in the western U.S.A. all took place after 1998. Currently we use approximately one cubic kilometre of water more per year than we actually receive in the Colorado River. Because of population growth and climate change, this number will increase further. It will take decades for the reservoirs to refill."

According to Udall, rapid action is required. "Households and industry have to save on their water consumption. And we will have to shift our water use from certain economic activities to others." More than 80 percent of the Colorado water is being used for agriculture. Udall: "A large part of the water is being used for low-value crops such as alfalfa, cow fodder. That's economically not sensible. But the farmers say: "Why should we use less? The water is still here!"

In order to counter the threatening water shortage, there should be no taboos when it comes to possible solutions, according to Pat Mulroy of the SNWA. One option would be to transport water from other parts of the U.S.A. to the western part of the country. Mulroy: "We have more than 100 years of experience with water transport in the U.S.A. If we had not done this, the American West would not be as we know it today. Therefore we cannot exclude the option to transport water from the Mississippi to the Rockies through westward water canals or tunnels. It is technically possible."

This may be true, but it would also be a mammoth project. Water tunnels would have to cross the more than 4000 meters high Rocky Mountains. Even still crazier ideas exist, according to Jennifer Pitt from the Environmental Defense Foundation. "There are plans to desalinate seawater, plans to drain water from the Great Lakes and there are even plans to transport icebergs to the coast of California in order to have them melted there."

One way to reduce water consumption is through changing garden vegetation, according to Pat Mulroy. "About half of all household water use goes to watering the lawns. Therefore we initiated the cash-for-grass program. Las Vegas residents who change their lawns into a desert garden receive twenty Dollars per square meter. With the cash-for-grass program we have saved millions of litters of water since 1999."

Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute in San Diego believes that climate change will make parts of the western U.S.A. uninhabitable. "Many people dream of living in Phoenix, but that city might become very inhospitable in the near future. In the summer already now temperatures often sore above forty degrees. People can only survive because of air-conditioning, which is usually switched on 24 hours a day. Many families have an electricity bill of 500 Dollars per month. Some people cannot afford this anymore."

Phoenix now has nearly two million inhabitants, mostly pensioners. They entertain themselves at the 150 golf courses around the city, all located in the desert. Meanwhile the cattle on the outskirts of the city is dying from the heat.

Because of the overuse of the Colorado water, since 1960, the river almost never reached its estuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Most Americans who hear this are shocked, according to Michael Cohen. "Everybody knows the Colorado. It is the river that flows through the famous Grand Canyon. The drying up of the river is an insult against Mother Nature. In this respect, the western U.S.A. needs a different lifestyle. It will be a huge challenge."