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Water inequality on the Colorado River

Lake Mead on the Colorado River in Nevada as seen from the Hoover Dam. Courtesy Waycool27
Jonathan Thompson, High Country News

For the last couple of decades, water managers in southern Nevada have promoted a plethora of conservation measures, from fixing leaks in the vast system of pipes snaking beneath Las Vegas to encouraging reduced-flow faucets to banning ornamental turf. Golf courses are irrigated with treated wastewater, and water-gulping swamp coolers are discouraged. All this has helped Nevada stay within tight limits on how much it can draw from the Colorado River, bringing per capita consumption down to just over 100 gallons per day — about one-fourth of what it was in 1991.

But the sacrifices aren’t shared equally. A few miles off the Las Vegas Strip, for example, on the far edge of a golf course and residential development, sits a cluster of red-tile-roofed buildings. With its athletic club, tennis court, pool, lawns and grandiose structures, you might mistake it for a small private college or exclusive resort. In fact, this complex is a single-family residence that belonged to the Sultan of Brunei until November of last year, when a company associated with tech-company founder Jeffrey Berns paid $25 million for it. The home, if you can call it that, is also Las Vegas’ largest water user, guzzling 13 million gallons in 2022 — more than 300 times what the average resident consumes. Run down the list of the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s top 100 users, and you’ll see more of the same: While most residents are increasingly thrifty with their water, a select few — often associated with multimilliondollar homes — are binging on the stuff.

Call it water inequality, or the growing disparity in water consumption across the Colorado River Basin. Agriculture uses far more water than cities, and some crops are thirstier than others; Scottsdale’s per capita consumption is nine times that of Tucson’s; California’s Imperial Irrigation District pulls about 10 times more water from the river than all of Nevada; and the Sultan of Brunei’s Las Vegas estate sucks up 35,000 gallons each day. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the Navajo Nation’s households lack running water altogether, and residents there use as little as 10 gallons daily.

This article appeared in the June 2024 print edition of the magazine with the headline “Water inequality on the Colorado River.”

This article first appeared on High Country News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.