Las Vegas Is Betting It Can Become the Silicon Valley of Water

| April 29, 2016 | 0 Comments | Email This Post Email This Post

Las Vegas Is Betting It Can Become the Silicon Valley of WaterLAS VEGAS — It sits covertly in a sandy patch of shrub, an octagonal fiberglass box on the gaudiest avenue in America. Inside is a fist-size hydrophone, one of 13 acoustic devices that listen continuously for the minutest of leaks along a miles-long pipeline that daily spits out 7.5 million gallons of water to hotels and casinos along the Las Vegas strip.

It is a piece of sophisticated water technology every bit as remarkable as the 36-story glass pyramid and the replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza that tower across the street. And it is no accident that the first public utility in the country to deploy this technology is in Las Vegas.

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. New front lawns have been banned for years, and for those grandfathered in, the city actually pays residents to pull up their turf, like a gun buyback program. Golf courses are punished with attention-getting fines for exceeding their rationed allotments. And thanks to a robust recycling program that treats and returns to Lake Mead most of the city’s indoor water, even as the city has grown by half a million people since 2000, it has managed to slash its aggregate water use by a third. But that’s merely the most visible and easily measured success.

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.

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