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Las Vegas becomes unlikely model for water conservation

Nevada's conservation plan amid drought
Las Vegas to save 10 billion gallons of water with new plan amid megadrought 05:27

Millions in Southern California are facing new water restrictions due to a megadrought crippling the Southwest, but across the border in Nevada — they've been conserving water for years. Now, officials in Las Vegas are going a step further by ripping out all the water-guzzling grass that serves no real purpose.

"For having a reputation as a city of excess, we're actually one of the most water-efficient cities in the world," said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

He showed CBS News one of Las Vegas' 54 pump stations, which deliver water from the nation's largest reservoir — Lake Mead on the Colorado River.

"Everything we use indoors is recycled. If it hits a drain in Las Vegas, we clean it. We put it back in Lake Mead," Entsminger said. "You could literally leave every faucet, every shower running in every hotel room, and it won't consume any more water."

In the past two decades, Lake Mead has dropped a startling 180 feet due to a the ongoing megadrought, made worse by climate change and the rapid growth of cities and agriculture in the Southwest. Southern Nevada, though, has beaten the odds by cutting its overall water use by 26% while also adding 750,000 people to its population since 2002.

Officials spend millions to get homeowners to install desert landscaping and mandating precisely when and how much anything outdoors can be watered. Now, they're doubling down to save every last drop.

A new law, the first of its kind in the nation, bans non-functional grass — defined as grass that is used to make roadways and roundabouts look good while serving no other purpose.

It's being torn out all over town, surprising some residents like Gail Greensteen.

"I am gonna miss it. 'Cause, I mean, there's nothing better than smelling fresh cut grass in the morning," she told CBS News.

Rolling up the green carpet does make a difference. Watering one square-foot of grass in Las Vegas uses 73 gallons of water per year, while drought tolerant landscaping uses just 18 gallons.

The water authority said banning non-functional grass will save 9.5 billion gallons of water, which is nearly 10% of Southern Nevada's total water supply.

Cameron Donnarumma, one of the city's 14 water waste investigators, told CBS News he's on the lookout for those letting water run down the drain. Fines start at $80 and top out at nearly $1,300.

Anthony Williams, the senior vice president for MGM Resorts, said the famed fountains at the Bellagio Hotel use water from a private well —  not the Colorado River. He also said the water that evaporates into the hot desert air is replaced with recycled water from a 1.5 million gallon pool.

MGM said that, overall, it has cut its water use at its various Vegas properties by 30% in the past three years.

Entsminger said that, as climate change makes the west hotter and drier, other cities can learn from Las Vegas' water conservation efforts.

"The situation we're facing isn't drought. It's the long term aridification of the desert Southwest. So these plans need to be permanent. And they need to build upon themselves each and every year," he said.

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