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In The West, 2 Conditions Are On A Collision Course: Drought And Growing Population

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over the last week, our colleagues over at The Indicator have been exploring the historic mega drought in the West through an economic lens. As part of that, Darian Woods and Nate Hegyi looked at two fast-moving trains that are on a collision course - the dwindling water supply and explosive growth.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, focuses on water issues in the West.

KYLE ROERINK: I'm a loud-mouth activist.

HEGYI: And these days, his loud-mouth activism is focused on Lake Mead and the millions of people who are expected to move to nearby Las Vegas in the next few years.

ROERINK: When I think of water waste in southern Nevada, I'm not thinking of, you know, the tourists taking a shower at the Bellagio after they just watched, you know, the fountain spit up and down outside. That's not what I'm thinking about.

HEGYI: What Roerink is actually worried about is all the water that's used outside on those green lawns or the golf courses or in gardens, you know, that actually makes up about 60% of the water used in the city. And it essentially evaporates. So I asked him what he would do if we could anoint him king of Las Vegas and in charge of all water.

ROERINK: On Day 1, there would be no blades of grass left here.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: R.I.P. grass.

HEGYI: Dead grass. No more. And the city's actually pushed regulations that reduce the amount of grass a newly built home can have - so no front yard, only half the backyard is grass, but there are still a lot of existing lawns in Las Vegas.

WOODS: And there will probably be more of them as the city keeps growing.

HEGYI: Political leaders are so hungry to help Las Vegas grow that they're actually pushing federal legislation that would sell off tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped public land south of the city to build thousands of new homes for future residents.

WOODS: Maybe those new residents would want a nice organic garden or a patch of green grass. That, of course, means more water usage.

HEGYI: Yeah, and obviously, Vegas isn't the only Western city that's growing, right? I mean, like, Phoenix is getting bigger. They need more water. St. George in Utah is growing. They need more water. And most of these towns are relying on this one shrinking river - the Colorado.

WOODS: This brings us to the big economic principle known as the tragedy of the commons.

HEGYI: Environmental economics 101 - if you have a shared resource, people will try to use as much of it as they can. They're just doing what's best for themselves - taking a drink. But as more and more people or developers take a drink, the water shrinks, and Roerink worries that people will start jostling for those last precious drips.

ROERINK: We can't go on with the status quo of just bulldozing the desert. The American ideal, the American myth of what homeownership means, of what living in a suburban community means, you know, it needs to be reshaped in the West.

WOODS: But it's complicated because everyone, from developers to political leaders to affordable housing advocates, they all say the same thing - the West is growing, and if we shut the door, stop building, we limit housing supply, prices go up even more. So cities continue to sprawl in these dry Western towns like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise. That helps solve housing affordability, but it does not solve the water problem.

HEGYI: Nate Hegyi.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

CORNISH: And if you want to hear more of The Indicator series on the historic mega drought in the West, you can visit npr.org/indicator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.