07/11/2003 12:00AM

Suburbs keep sprawling but water crisis looms


The Las Vegas area temperature reached a sizzling 116 degrees this week, but even a little fact like that does little to slow down the massive population growth in southern Nevada.

Just-released U.S. Census Bureau data measuring cities with a population of more than 100,000 lists North Las Vegas and Henderson as the second- and third-fastest growing cities in the country. The two cities are suburbs, north and south, respectively, of Las Vegas, which ranked 32nd on the same list.

What U.S. city was first on the list? Gilbert, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.

The census counted 508,604 people in Las Vegas, 206,153 in Henderson and 135,902 in North Las Vegas.

The growth in Las Vegas figures to slow only because land is becoming scarce within the city limits. The suburbs could keep expanding, however, as more government land is released to developers.

North Las Vegas figures to add more than 20,000 residents in the next five years as the Aliante master-planned community is built. The same goes for Henderson, as thousands of new homes will be built along Interstate 15 as more land is released for residential use.

Local casino giants Station Casinos and Coast Resorts have taken full advantage of the population growth. Both have embraced the newcomers by opening wildly successful casinos in recent years, the Suncoast and Green Valley Ranch, and more new projects are on the way.

As the population booms, the demand on the infrastructure and natural resources grows unabated. The biggest problem could be the water supply, as Western states are in the midst of a horrendous five-year drought.

Bennett Raley, the U.S. Assistant Interior Secretary, met with representatives from seven states this week at the MGM Grand in a conference about the growing water shortage.

The fear locally is that the Nevada Water Authority would eventually have to suspend the granting of water permits for new home and business construction. That would bring the impressive growth to a screeching halt.

A worst-case scenario would be the potential exodus of people from the Las Vegas valley.

What bothered some representatives is that California and Nevada already exceed their water allotment from the Colorado River. California uses 20 percent more water than it is budgeted for and Nevada is 8 percent over its limit.

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