07/12/2002 12:00AM

Profligate water use coming back to haunt


One thing that Las Vegas casinos and the town's residents love to flaunt is water.

Any tourist that drives the Strip can see water cascading from fountains in front of the Bellagio, Mirage, Treasure Island, and other casinos.

In fact, gaming impresario Steve Wynn's newest megaresort project, Le Reve, will be a water-themed

42-story hotel built where the Desert Inn used to stand. Though Wynn has kept plans close to the vest, he hinted that a huge man-made lake is a part of the blueprint.

Las Vegas residents chip in with plenty of leafy landscaping and swimming pools. It's all very unnatural in this desert environment, but helpful to overcome five months of 100-plus-degree weather.

What's great about all this is Las Vegas's can-do attitude of just because we live in a desert, the lack of water won't stop us. We'll find more, some way, some how.

Well, the reality of the water situation is coming to the fore.

Unchecked growth at a rate of 5,000 new residents a month and an endless building of new homes, businesses, and casinos has taxed the water supply.

For example, Nevada's share of water from the Colorado River was projected to be 320,000 acre-feet by the year 2007. At the current growth rate, Nevada will have exhausted that allotment by the end of 2002. Extend the current growth rate through the year 2020, and the state will likely need 700,000 acre-feet annually.

The problem is exacerbated by an extreme drought in the Western states. Normal precipitation in Las Vegas is 4.5 inches per year. This year we've received 0.77 inches.

Snow pack, a key contributor to water supply, is way down. In Kyle Canyon, a normal snowfall is 15 feet; this year it received three feet.

The shoreline at man-made Lake Mead has receded 365 feet since a year ago. This is its lowest level in 30 years.

So, you ask, what does this all have to do with gaming?

Typically, when a casino company wants something, money is no object. But in this simple case of supply and demand, all Las Vegas residents will be affected, as more and more water is needed. We may be able to buy more of it, but most likely it will be through the nose.

Larry Paulson, a retired biologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told The Las Vegas Review-Journal that the state is living dangerously. He said that allowing growth to continue at the current rate without a guaranteed water supply could leave Nevadans in a bind much sooner than they think.

"We're flirting with disaster," he said. "All the options I've heard sound iffy. They may or may not be enough to sustain southern Nevada long into the future."

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.