Since 1960, tens of millions of people have migrated toward the Pacific, settling in Las Vegas and Tempe and Boulder. Denver has tripled in size. Phoenix, having added some 3.6 million people, has more than quintupled. Today, one in eight Americans depends on water from the Colorado River system, and about 15 percent of the nation’s crops are grown with it. ... the demands on the river were never sustainable. In 1922, the seven states in the Colorado River watershed signed a compact dividing its water. With little historical data, they calculated the river’s capacity after a decade of unusually wet conditions. ... Since the current drought began, in 2000, that shortfall has averaged 25 percent. Instead of adjusting their allotments, states have drawn down the nation’s largest reservoirs, which are quickly draining. Even this winter’s El Niño weather pattern won’t bring enough rain to restore the region’s supply ... To determine who gets water and who doesn’t, states rely on a system that originated more than 150 years ago—when water was plentiful and people were scarce. ... “prior appropriation,” which promised rights to use a share of water based on who got there first. ... Prior appropriation became the foundation of western water law, and it established order in the West. Today, though, state water laws are largely to blame for the crippling shortages. Because water rights were divvied up at a time when few cities existed west of the Mississippi, some 80 percent of the region’s water goes to farmers, leaving insufficient supplies for growing cities and industries. And farmers must put all their water to “beneficial use” or risk losing their allotment—a rule that was originally intended to prevent hoarding but that today can encourage waste. Many farmers have not adopted modern technology that can cut water use by up to 50 percent, in part because they need to protect their water rights. ... Allowing people to buy and sell water rights is a more expedient way to redistribute the West’s water, he argues. Waste would be discouraged, water would shift to where it’s needed most, and farmers would be compensated. ... The West would have plenty of water if people used it more wisely: Most of the region’s supply goes to growing low-value, water-intensive crops such as hay and alfalfa—in many cases in the desert.
If Las Vegas is the most profligate place on earth, where chance is king and the future is routinely gambled away, it is also possibly the most frugal and forward-looking American city in one respect: water. And now it’s trying to leverage that reputation by turning itself into a hub for new and innovative water technology. ... In the thirstiest city in the nation’s driest state (it gets just 4 inches of rain a year), water is the last thing Las Vegas wants to gamble on. After 16 years of drought, water levels in nearby Lake Mead, the city’s primary water source, have dropped so precipitously that white rings have formed on its banks. Las Vegas, like a bankrupt gambler who suddenly realizes that things have to change, has responded with a host of water conservation measures. ... The water industry is by nature risk averse, since a mistake can have catastrophic health consequences (see Michigan; Flint). But with more pressure on water supplies around the United States and the world, innovation is increasingly important. Las Vegas’ focus on water—and the constant pressure on its supply—has driven years worth of public experimentation, establishing the area’s umbrella water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, as a nationally recognized leader in water quality treatment. The utility boasts a state-of-the-art laboratory that produces ground-breaking research and a roster of scientists who routinely publish in major academic journals.