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Rod Smith

Battling The Drought: The Water Use Myth

22 March 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Gaggles of visitors stroll up and down the Strip, agog over the spectacle, especially features such as the fountains, the tropical landscaping, and the assorted pools and water features.

"Awesome. But you'd think when they tell us we have to order water (in hotel restaurants), they'd tell them they have to shut down the water works and cut out the tropics," notes Maggie Sullivan of Boston.

That's part of the myth of Las Vegas.

Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy says that in reality, hotel-casinos consume a very small proportion of the water used here.

In fact, she says, local hotels account for 7 percent of the area's total use, even though their visitors account for an average of 14 percent of the people in the valley at any given time.

Another reality is that water consumption in Nevada is actually low on a per capita basis compared with the nation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Nevada ranks 36th in population but 41st in water consumption among the 50 states.

Finally, Mulroy says the amount of water hotel-casinos consume is miniscule on average, compared with the total amount of water that is piped into the hotels. In truth, most of the water goes to room use and other guest amenities, all of which is then returned to the system, purified and recycled into Lake Mead for everyone to use again.

"I don't care about (hotel-casino) use (because) 80 percent of the water goes back in the system. It has no impact on water consumption," Mulroy said.

However, she said the authority does care about the hotels' landscaping and cooling towers, even though they account for only 20 percent of the water piped into the properties.

"That's the exact opposite of the typical (residential) customer who uses 70 percent of their water outside," Mulroy said.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor and casino industry expert Bill Thompson agreed with Mulroy.

"The biggest water problem in the valley is personal lawns. If we have a major crisis, the government should mandate that we not water our lawns at all until the crisis is over. We could then proceed to dealing with waste at casinos, but we need to recognize that this is a minor part of the problem," he said.

Mulroy does note, however, that the averages can mask enormous discrepancies in relative water use between different hotel-casinos and what they may be doing to cut their consumption.

How much water a hotel-casino and its guests consume depends on the size of the property and the amenities they offer, Mulroy said.

For example, water consumption at Circus Circus is very low per room, 51,000 gallons a year. Even though it is an older property, it has few water features, little landscaping and no spa or similar amenities. It therefore illustrates that what happens inside the resort is more important than its age, she said.

On the other hand, water consumption per room at casinos such as Sunset Station and Green Valley Ranch is very high, 346,000 gallons and 752,000 gallons, respectively, because they have few rooms but vast amenities.

Still, Station Casinos adheres to watering restriction guidelines in Henderson and Las Vegas, and most of its restaurants have implemented a policy of only offering "water upon request" and a plan to minimize the use of linens to reduce water needed for laundering.

By comparison, MGM Grand, the largest single hotel in Las Vegas, uses more water than any other property in Las Vegas, but only modest amounts on a per room basis, 94,000 gallons, thanks to modern water management systems.

For example, more than half of the total acreage at MGM Grand and the surrounding land owned by parent company MGM Mirage has been converted to xeriscaping, or landscaping using low-water consumption, desert plants and ground materials. This compares with 1995, when 85 percent of the total acreage was turf and 15 percent was xeriscaped.

Turf requires 60 gallons of water per year per square foot, compared with xeriscaping, which requires 20 gallons of water per year per square foot.

MGM Grand has further increased water efficiency by using two water wells to supply water to the cooling tower for air conditioning, irrigate the landscape and operate its water feature, all of which amounts to saving the water authority about 120 million gallons of water a year.

On the other hand, the tourists gawking at the fountains at Bellagio are not all wrong.

Of the top 10 hotel-casino water users, Bellagio uses more water per room than any other Strip property by far, but that is not to say it is snubbing its nose over the issue.

The casino company recently removed more than 20,000 square feet of turf from the MGM Grand property and converted it to rock mulch and xeriscaping, converted more than 1.5 acres of shrub-landscaped areas from overhead spray irrigation to drip irrigation to save up to 80 percent of its water, and replaced all parking lot planters with water-wise landscape.

Mandalay Resort Group is similarly managing its water resources.

Mandalay spokesman John Marz said his company has replaced thousands of feet of sod at its hotels with water smart landscape or removed it altogether.

"We've also removed a waterfall from The Adventuredome (at Circus Circus) and set timers on fountains at Mandalay Bay so that less water evaporates. And we've replaced most of our spray sprinklers with bubblers at Circus Circus and Excalibur," he said.

Similarly, Boyd Gaming Corp. has launched a turf conversion project at the Stardust this year to replace roughly 132,000 square feet of grass landscape with xeriscaping of native desert plants and flowers.

Each of Boyd Gaming's nearly 40 restaurants has also implemented a water upon request program to eliminate waste from unconsumed glasses of water.

Also, in an unusual move for Las Vegas, the company has turned off the decorative water features at Sam's Town and the Stardust.

Mulroy said the authority is generally pleased with the consumption and conservation programs the hotel-casinos have in place, specifically because such a large proportion is recycled.

"They need to do more, but only because of the leadership role they need to play. It's a symbolic value," she said. "The same thing went on in Southern California. Look at Anaheim. You can imagine how much water Disney uses, but nobody wanted to shut them down.

"I've had this conversation with the hotels. I understand their dilemma. They sell an escape from reality. You can leave the real world behind. Their worry is when customers see the real world intrude, it'll hurt the tourist industry."

Gaming companies have also heard such pleas from regulators, and some are working to reach conservation goals cooperatively.

For example, Station Casinos is providing related messages on property marquees urging residents and other businesses to be water-smart in order to encourage community participation. Also, sessions with employees bring them the latest information from the Henderson Water Watchers and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"We partnered with the city of Henderson to have representatives come in and conduct employee information and awareness seminars on issues concerning the drought. We did the same with the Las Vegas Valley Water District for our non-Henderson properties. The water district set up informational tables back-of-house with brochures identifying ways in which our team members can save water," said Station Casinos spokeswoman Lesley Pittman.

Thompson agreed that water features and lavish landscaping could prove critical to the gaming industry and the economic development of Las Vegas.

"We have to recognize that the splendor -- like it or not -- of our casinos is a very big part of the (economic) engine that makes Las Vegas work for all of us. I want to see the engine run strong well into the future. If some dramatic use of water that is not harmful to the supply in terms of the overall picture is attempted by casinos, I would say 'lay off' -- their dramatic games keep us all in business," he said.

Since hotel-casinos are relatively modest water users, Mulroy said there is little the water authority can do with them to conserve added amounts of money.

"We raised rates and they pay the top tier. So when you look at their consumption they pay more per gallon and more in total (than anyone else)," she said.

However, on their own, the hotel-casinos can still play their symbolic role and take steps such as taking out tropical landscaping and replacing it with xeriscaping, "that's where they can make a difference for Las Vegas," Mulroy said.