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Sin City's Continuous Flow

LAS VEGAS-You could almost hear the clang of jackpot bells in Pat Mulroy's office. In late April, the tenacious water czar of southern Nevada chalked up another win in her two-decade crusade to satisfy Las Vegas's unquenchable thirst. This time it was thanks to a state water regulator's thumbs up on a plan to pump almost 20 billion gallons of water from a vast underground aquifer near the state's east central ranchlands, sucking water from deep beneath its hayfields and sending it 285 miles south to the quarter of a million homes served by Mulroy's Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The decision was followed days later by an even bigger coup: a historic agreement to rejigger the way Colorado Riverwater is divvied up among Nevada and the six other western states that share the lifeline. Swapping the current use-it-or-lose-it annual system for a more flexible, market-style approach, the hard-fought deal among the states marks the biggest change in the controversial "Law of the River" since it was inked some 80 years ago. It lets downriver states like Mulroy's create liquid bank accounts, allowing them to save up surplus water in wetter years, in reservoirs for instance, to use during later periods of drought, and also lets them bolster their water supplies, in part, by paying for other states to conserve, so more water might be available for Nevada-a scheme that is expected to win final approval from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne by year's end.

"What we got was huge," the 54-year-old Mulroy boasts of what could mean a near doubling of southern Nevada's total water supply. That's enough not only to keep the Las Vegas Strip's famous fountains dancing through even the worst droughts but also to maintain the city's status as one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas; 29 percent growth just between 2000 and 2006. "It's our bridge to the future," she says.

That bridge, which she plans to reinforce with everything from cloud-seeding campaigns to south-of-the-border desalination plants, is but the latest proof that when it comes to the booming but arid American West, water increasingly defies the law of gravity. As the old saying goes, "water flows uphill ... toward money," water analyst Michael Cohen says of Mulroy's gold-tipped divining rod.

Power grab. To be sure, Mulroy's success would have been impossible without the backing of Vegas's handful of billionaire gaming and real-estate development tycoons, who have ponied up hundreds of millions in water connection charges and other fees-not to mention millions more in political contributions. A German native with chiseled features and a knack for political maneuvering, Mulroy started her bureaucratic climb as a deputy manager in Las Vegas's water district in 1985. By 1991, she'd shrewdly melded southern Nevada's once warring local water agencies into a single, far more potent authority. Mulroy then used her growing clout to persuade the city's power brokers not only to help bankroll her water grab efforts but also to abide a growing array of conservation measures.

Naysayers argue that SNWA-backed programs like those that recycle indoor wastewater and pay residents $2 a square foot to swap sod for drought-tolerant ground cover simply aren't enough to offset the impacts of an annual flood of 65,000-plus new residents-impacts not only on Vegas's water supply but on a fragile desert ecosystem currently in the depths of a seven-year drought. "Maybe we can meet our needs now, but we don't have enough water to double or triple our population," says Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of growth opponents that have fought piping water from the north. "Instead of just hurting during a drought like we are now, we'll be facing a catastrophic water shock."

He and other critics compare the pipeline project to Los Angeles's notorious 1913 water grab from the Owens Valley, 22 miles to the northeast, which transformed a swath of rich agricultural land into a wasteland. Yet water analysts like Cohen note that today's environmental laws-if properly enforced-will all but prevent a repeat of the story made famous in the movie Chinatown. Meanwhile, new water-saving technology and conservation measures may leave more room for growth than some might expect. Indeed, according to an analysis by the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, Vegas's total water use has remained fairly constant in recent years and has actually fallen on a per capita basis (albeit still far higher than in some other southwestern cities).

To Mulroy, such progress shows that despite her city's Sodom-on-the-Colorado reputation for extravagance, "we can live and grow sustainably," she says of decisions like the one she made three years ago to pull up much of the turf at her nearly 1-acre home-despite her native Nevada husband's objections. "He was just being lazy."

Fly into Vegas's McCarran International Airport, and it's pretty easy to spot those similarly disinclined to change. Grandfathered in from the days when the city first proffered itself as a desert oasis, older neighborhoods like those built near Las Vegas Springs-the city's original water source-stand in verdant defiance of the 100-degree heat, their tree-lined streets and broad lawns sustained by vast arrays of sprinklers.

Uphill climb. From there, a vast patchwork of newer neighborhoods fan out in every direction, each one thumbing its nose at the surrounding desert: from the backyard pools ubiquitous in the cookie-cutter developments south of the airport to the audacious Lake Las Vegas golf course and boating community on the city's eastern outskirts, where the water needed to keep its 320-acre centerpiece full literally flows uphill-pumped from nearby Lake Mead, the city's main water source.

Yet for all the obvious waste, there are also increasing signs of thrift. Take "Inspirada," a new master-planned 1,200-home development that swaps the conventional golf-course community design for an efficient "new urbanist" ethic. Instead of meandering "S"-curved streets designed to maximize views of the fairways, it features a classic square grid system of streets clustered around a public park and community pools. Front lawns and street-facing garages are replaced by front porches and drip-watered flower gardens. "You can't say 'no turf at all,'" developer John Ritter explains of landscaping restrictions that allow for a patch of green in the backyard. "But it's not two rocks and a cactus either."

Ritter claims the design, which incorporates an array of mesquite trees, Texas mountain laurel, and other drought-tolerant flora, makes the community about a third more water-efficient than conventional developments. "Could we do better? Sure," Ritter says of improvements that include sophisticated water-recycling systems and rooftops with photovoltaic panels. "But right now, affordability is a huge issue. And if you're talking about a $40,000 upgrade for solar cells on a $340,000 house, that's a really tough sell for most people."

Conservation. To be sure, many Las Vegans think they do plenty already to conserve, thanks largely to the Las Vegas Wash, an urban river fed primarily by water recycled from every one of the city's sinks, bathtubs, and toilets. In a literal take on the city's claim that "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas," the Wash's treated water flows back into Lake Mead, where it eventually makes its way back to the city's spigots. "So as long as I don't water my lawn too much, I can take a nice long shower because all the water's recycled," Mulroy boasts of the system she helped put in place.

Such comments make people like Steve Rypka cringe. The lanky 6-foot-3-inch "green living" consultant has made a science of how to take a five-minute shower, recently winnig a "water hero" award from Mulroy's agency, in part, by installing an adjustable ring on the low-flow showerhead in his bathroom.

"I still get a nice spray at well under a gallon a minute," he boasts. "And I can get clean in less than five."

Rypka complains that for all her conservation programs, Mulroy still promotes wastefulness, not merely because she encourages long showers but because she doesn't charge enough for the water her agency meters. To be sure, the Las Vegas area's tiered rate system-which charges between $1.10 and $3.48 per 1,000 gallons-costs most residents about the same as what folks in Chicago pay and about a third of what Santa Fe, N.M., residents do.

"It just shows how out of touch folks are with the reality here," the longtime Las Vegas resident says as he drives his Toyota Prius past a field full of twisted creosote bushes, the Mojave Desert's most water efficient, yet unloved native plant. "People don't like to use it for landscaping because they think it's ugly," Rypka says of the plants. "But if we really want to get serious about sustainability-not just 10 or 20 years out, but 500 years-then we're going to have to rethink our idea of what's beautiful." For Rypka, it's the creosote. For others, it's the neon lights and shimmering fountains. In Las Vegas, reconciling those two views is a constant struggle.

By Alex Markels