Las Vegas water use has dropped, but affluent residents remain copious consumers

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Steve Marcus

A sprinkler waters a lawn at a home near Rancho Drive and Oakey Boulevard Aug. 29, 2013. The lawn sprinklers were running at a prohibited time and overwatering so that water flowed into the gutter.

Sun, Sep 22, 2019 (2 a.m.)

Total and per-capita water use in Southern Nevada has declined over the last decade, even as the region’s population has increased by 14%. But water use among the biggest water users — some of the valley’s wealthiest, most prominent residents — has held steady.

The top 100 residential water users serviced by the Las Vegas Valley Water District used more than 284 million gallons of water in 2018 — over 11 million gallons more than the top 100 users of 2008 consumed at the time, records show. The water district covers the city of Las Vegas, unincorporated metro areas including Paradise and Winchester, and some small, rural communities.

In Henderson, the top 100 residential water users in 2018 combined used more than 207.4 million gallons of water. That’s about 3.46 million gallons more than what the city’s then-top 100 users consumed 10 years ago.

Properties that made the top 100 “lists” — which the Henderson and Las Vegas water districts do not regularly track, but compiled in response to records requests — consumed between 1.39 million gallons and 12.4 million gallons. By comparison, the median annual water consumption for a Las Vegas water district household was 100,920 gallons in 2018.

Las Vegas and Henderson represent a combined 86% of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s total service area, said Bronson Mack, spokesperson for the water authority and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. In both communities, property size and the amount and type of landscaping strongly influence how much water residential customers consume.

Many of the properties on the lists are hardly “typical” homes, Mack said.

“What you have here is a list of single-family residential properties that are some of our largest single-family residential properties in the valley,” he said.

The property that used the most water last year is a 15.9-acre compound owned by the family of Jefri Bolkiah, prince of Brunei. The ultra-luxurious, sprawling Spring Valley mansion, secondary buildings and pools on Spanish Gate Drive used over 12.4 million gallons of water. That’s 93 times what the average Las Vegas water district household consumed last year.

Bolkiah’s home has consistently appeared on the Las Vegas water district’s annual top user list since media organizations began requesting the data over the last two decades, Mack said.

Close behind Bolkiah’s home in water use was eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s home in Henderson’s Seven Hills, which used over 11.5 million gallons in 2018. The property’s main house contains 33 bedrooms, 14 full bathrooms and 22 half bathrooms, according to the Clark County Assessor’s Office.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s home in Summerlin was the third biggest water user of 2018, consuming just over 11 million gallons. Two other properties on the list located in the same neighborhood also link to the Adelson family and a foundation in its name.

Red Rock Resorts Director Lorenzo Fertitta’s Summerlin home consumed the fourth-most water in 2018 at nearly 9.4 million gallons. An address tracing to California-based tech entrepreneur Lap Shun Hui came next, consuming over 6.9 million gallons of water; Hui sold the Summerlin South property in April 2019, according to the Clark County Assessor’s Office.

Several real estate developers appeared on the lists as well. Joel Laub, who plans to build homes at the former Bonnie Springs Ranch, used over 5.4 million gallons of water at his Southern Highlands home; mining magnate Jim Rhodes, who has proposed building thousands of homes at the top of Blue Diamond Hill, used 3.4 million gallons at his Spring Valley mansion; and Yohan Lowie, CEO and founder of EHB Companies and the man behind the mired plan to redevelop the closed Badlands Golf Course, used 2.7 million gallons at his Queensridge property.

Gaming executives on the lists include Golden Entertainment CEO Blake Sartini (used 3.9 million gallons), Station Casinos CEO Frank Fertitta III (used 3.3 million gallons), and Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin (used 2.9 million gallons).

Another notable property owner was Nancy Walton Laurie, heir to Walmart, who consumed nearly 6 million gallons of water at her MacDonald Highlands home in Henderson. There’s also professional poker player Bob Feduniak, whose Southern Highlands home used over 3.2 million gallons.

Although their water consumption is still well above average, some property owners have reduced consumption in the last 10 years.

Bolkiah’s home cut water use by nearly 5 million gallons since 2008, in part by removing 73,000 square feet of water-thirsty grass in 2009, Mack said.

Compared to 2008, Omidyar’s water consumption went down by over 2 million gallons last year. Former Greenspun Media Group chairman Danny Greenspun’s water use at his Green Valley North property also dropped from over 8.4 million gallons in 2008 to 6.6 million gallons in 2018.

Adelson’s home, on the other hand, used 2.2 million gallons of water in 2008 compared to over 11 million gallons last year.

“One thing we notice on the list is people kind of bounce around a little bit,” Mack said. “Someone who might have ended up in the top 10 might be 25 the next year.”

Although property size influences water use, some of the top users’ neighbors have properties as large as theirs, but don’t appear on the lists, Mack noted. They might have participated in the water authority’s conservation initiatives, such as the water-smart landscape rebate program, which refunds homeowners who convert from grass to desert landscaping.

Modifying or reducing irrigation is the most effective way to save water, Mack said. That is especially true for homes built before 2003, when the water authority adopted stricter development codes.

Homeowners have another reason to cut outdoor water use: Water consumed outdoors is lost to the system, unlike water used indoors, which generally gets recycled and returned to Lake Mead through an energy-intensive process, Mack said.

Under the water authority’s tiered pricing system, those who use more water are charged at a higher rate. Nonetheless, the top water-use lists illustrate that for the ultra-wealthy, a costly water bill doesn’t necessarily incentivize behavior change.

Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, laments that Southern Nevada, with its emphasis on tourism and leisure and reputation for excess, seems to lack a “culture” of water conservation.

“It was a little shocking to move here and see pools and sprinklers and water being wasted,” Martin said.

The valley’s strides in water conservation are nonetheless remarkable. Total water consumption has gone down from 261,000 acre-feet in 2008 to 243,000 acre-feet in 2018. Annual water use per capita has also dropped from 144 gallons to 124 gallons per day between 2008 and 2018, Mack said.

“The water authority has done a very, very effective job as it relates to their water smart landscape rebate program, but they can’t force people to do it,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Nevada is the driest state in the country. Despite gains this winter due to heavy snowfall, Lake Mead water levels have been dropping since at least 1999.

“It’s going to be incumbent upon individuals to realize that they live in the desert and that there isn’t an infinite supply of water for them to use wantonly,” Roerink said.

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