Now that I'm back to the rarified atmosphere of the Bay Area, I can attest that Las Vegas has to be one of the least-sustainable environments on the planet. That doesn't mean the city is not doing anything about changing what it can, as it is taking a few steps for the better. More on that later. The challenge with city rankings such as SustainLane's US City Sustainability Rankings is that so much of what is unsustainable about Las Vegas is hard to conclusively quantify when comparing one city against the 49 other largest cities of the nation.
Sure if you had unlimited budget you could begin to anlayze the city's rampant energy use (almost none of it renewable), imported water use, and almost 100% tourism and real estate devlopment-based economy. Las Vegas is wholly dependent on jet travel and behemoth air-conditioned hotel/casinos landscaped with petunias and primroses, swapped out weekly. A true regional metabolistic analysis would yield some compelling results.
Let's ignore the so-called wonky stuff and get down to what the city is like these days of late spring.
I rode a five-dollar a trip monorail for tourists on The Strip, which isn't even in Las Vegas proper, but rather Clark County (wink-wink), for whatever legal and economic reasons. We're not talking about commute ridership with the monorail, as only 4 percent in the city actually commutes on public transit and those people almost all use a skeleton crew of buses. That's because no one really lives on The Strip.
Come to Vegas and you'll see but not feel the new air misters that spray over people walking on sidewalks and in front of hotels. I couldn't even detect their effect in the 107-degree heat, as their wispy vapors immediately evaporated into the hot desert air. Wonder how much water that wastes?
Bellagio Lake's water show shoots water out of scores of canons every hour or so to the tunes of Trish Yearwood or Elvis, causing the evaporation of 20,000 gallons of water every hour during the summer, according to fellow blogger Josh Ellis, who is also a columnist for the Las Vegas City Life newspaper. That water comes from Lake Mead and hundreds of miles away across the state, with more and more of it coming from "compromised sources" near abandoned or operating gold mines, which can leach many toxic compounds into the water table.
Then there's the planning and development which has pushed the city out toward federal land at its edges, with tract dvelopment after tract development using more and more water and gas, through lawns, swimming pools and commuting. This is one of the hottest, most arid deserts in the world, with temperatures over 100 degrees for months at a time, climbing as high as more than 120 degrees. Not fit for human life, really, especially not on this scale. I walked past a sunburned, heat-stroked child passed out in the arms of her parents, as they sat in the blazing sun fanning her.
Vegas resident Ellis points out the futility of considering sustainability in a city where everyone and everything is flown in on jets, including much of its food and the city's main business--its tourists. "With rising oil costs, if even a quarter of tourists for six months won't be able to come because of higher airplane tickets, Las Vegas would vanish into the desert like Carthage. And unlike other cities that take a hit in one sector, there are no other industries for people to migrate to."
We could go on, but I'll stop at this point and consider the flip side.
Las Vegas has more LEED buildings per capita than most other cities in the nation, coming at #11 out of the 50 largest cities in SustainLane's rnaking. The city, though, uses little or no solar despite its location, so don't think about those type of LEED buildings. In transportation, Las Vegas is taking the lead in developing a fleet of alternative fueled vehicles that is currently the nation's largest on a per capita basis: more than 50% of the vehicles use biodiesel, electric hyrbrid, compressed natural gas or hydrogen. Cool. I've been told the county fleet even uses 100% biodiesel for school buses.
So there are whiffs of clean tech development, even in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the city will continue to promote itself as the center of entertainment, excitement, fun, risk and 24-hour good times. What American (or Canadian) can resist those siren calls? Now if we see Vegas start to really become more sustainable by doing things like having effective public transit systems for its residents, and using solar and less water, there might be hope it will not vanish into the sands of time to become an unsolvable enigma for future archeologists.
Because without Vegas, where else would people go for fun and games?