Nov
25

Sustainable Las Vegas

By

citycenter_2I was recently on the floor of the Luxor walking in between craps and blackjack tables when I seemed to have gotten the most absurd idea in my head: Sustainable Las Vegas.  I thought about whether there might be an organization advocating for a more sustainable way of doing things in the Sin City.  But the mere juxtaposition of the word sustainable with Las Vegas made me burst into seemingly uncontrollable laughter.  Since I was by myself and there were at least a hundred people around me, I tried to regain my composure.  As I did I thought, “Well, if the idea doesn’t pass the laugh test, that means my gut is telling me that this whole place is going the way of The Sands1, and probably sooner than later.”  Is that the case?

I think of Las Vegas as living off of three major resources.  These are oil, water, and illusion.  While the last is virtually inexhaustible, the first two are finite and currently buckling under increasing pressure to supply a growing and resource intensive population worldwide.  So let me first deal with illusion.

An illusion will appears after the jump…

It is perhaps fitting that the modern Las Vegas finds its roots in the construction of a casino named The Mirage.  Built in 1989 by Steve Wynn and financed by Wall Street’s junk bonds, the Mirage set a new standard for casinos on the Strip and breathed new life into an ailing town.  A mirage is a refraction of light which can produce a visual image of something that is not in fact there.  The classic portrayal of a mirage is with the parched desert traveller who is prompted to keep walking toward the image of an oasis.  The closer he gets, the further away goes the oasis.  A similar phenomena happens as gamblers press on at the table in search of elusive winnings, or making back what they already lost, though this does not involve physics.

Since Las Vegas is located in the Mojave desert, it takes a mastery of illusion to keep building and keep growing.  But that is precisely what is taking place now.  Even in the midst of the biggest credit crisis since the Great Depression, a consortium of investors including MGM Mirage managed to build CityCenter, the largest privately financed development in the United States2.  The price tag is estimated at 11 billion dollars, most of it debt financed.  CityCenter opens its first hotel & casino, Aria, in December.  Aria just received a gaming license on November 20.  In addition to Aria, CityCenter will open Vdara and Mandarin Oriental, a mix of condos and hotels, Veer Towers, two 37-story luxury condominium buildings, Harmon Hotel and Spa, a non-gaming luxury hotel (to open in 2010), Crystals Mall, a 500,000 square-foot retail and theater complex, and a 225,000 square-foot convention center.  In all, about 4,800 hotel rooms, 1,500 furnished condominium-hotel residences, and 1,000 condominium apartments will be coming online3.

Now comes the sustainable part.  On November 20th, CityCenter announced that it had received its fifth and sixth LEED Gold certifications from the US Green Building Council.  This means that all CityCenter buildings opening this December have achieved this Gold rating.  That’s not all.  The Forest Stewardship Council recognized CityCenter as the best commercial project of 2009 due to its effort to use sustainably harvested wood.  The scale of the effort was so large that several suppliers who were not previously certified by FSC had to obtain certification in order to participate in the project.  CityCenter goes on to highlight several more innovative green practices: cogeneration and efficiency measures will mean less power drawn off the grid, efficient fixtures will mean less water consumption, natural gas vehicles mean less pollution, a greater emphasis on recycling means less going to the landfill etc4.  However, all these laudable achievements don’t highlight the fact that this is a seventy acre development in a desert.  Here, less is indeed more.  Anytime the word ‘less’ is used, it means less than otherwise would have been consumed if we hadn’t given a shit.  The net impact is that Las Vegas will consume more of everything, most importantly more oil and water.  And the consumption patterns for those resources is already on an unsustainable path.

Let’s consider oil.  Las Vegas is a city built of tourism attracting an estimated 36 million visitors each year5.  In order for CityCenter not to cannabalize existing hotels, many of which are owned by the same investors funding CityCenter, they are counting an additional two million visitors each year.  How will most of these visitors get to Las Vegas?  Airplanes.  The airline business looks to be woefully unsustainable, at least in an era where oil supply has trouble keeping up with demand.  The run up to near $150 per barrel oil prices in 2008 put the airline industry in a bind.  Every dollar increase in a gallon price of fuel added $19 billion to the airlines’ combined operating expenses6.  However, airlines could only pass on so much of that cost increase to their passenger before losing them to other forms of transportation, video-conferencing, and stay-cations.  As passenger levels fall, airlines have no choice but to curtail service.  When that happens, they have an even harder time meeting their fixed capital cost of the airplanes themselves.  Estimates vary on what oil price level is sustainable for airlines, but when it was over $100 last year, Wall Street analysts were drafting obituaries for many airlines.  Oil has recovered to near $80 after falling to $33 even in a weak economy with 10% unemployment.  Economic recovery may bring “deja vu all over again” to the airline industry.

Next we move to water.   I might have mentioned that Las Vegas is located in a desert.  The area receives about four inches of rain annually.  Suffice to say, that is not enough to quench the thirst of a half million residents.  The city draws most of its water from the Colorado River, specifically from the Lake Mead resivoir. Due to drought conditions in the last ten years, Lake Mead is at an all time low, measuring in at 1094 feet or about 45% of capacity7.  If the level drops below 1050 feet, the whole of Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric operation will be shut down.  If the level drops below 1000 feet, Las Vegas simply will not be able to draw drinking water sparking a major crisis.  Upstream, Lake Powell is a little more full and could come to the rescue temporarily.  But the overall picture is grim.  To restore Lake Mead to even 80% capacity will take an incremental  9,880 thousand acre feet (KAF) or 3.2 trillion gallons.  It might rain some more, uhh… snow some… uhh…  Las Vegas can only draw so much anyway.  Other cities such as Los Angeles have rights to the water in Lake Mead too.  Based on a 2007 agreement, the Federal Government will intervene to save Lake Mead from catastrophe.  But this is only done by cutting off people upstream.  I can hear Sean Hannity now.

It is sometimes argued that Las Vegas only uses 3% of Nevada’s total water.  That may be true, but that does not mean that the other 97% has not been spoken for.  Observers may criticize the use of water for cattle and agriculture in such a dry state.  But that just means the price of water is higher than what Las Vegans are willing to pay.  They have watched Lake Mead drop this far all while charging households $2.15 per thousand gallons for the first four thousand gallons per month.  A short term fix is to build a pipeline from Lincoln County where the Southern Nevada Water Authority had recently gained water rights.  This is a controversial strategy, one that could have severe environmental consequences, and one that does not nearly solve the crisis.  Recently a judge ruled in favor of Lincoln county residents and issued an injuction that stopped the project.  An appeal is underway.  In any case it is expensive.  The SNWA is already embarked on a 8.5 billion dollar capital plan to fund similar projects.  How does it pay for all this?  By charging new customers for hookups.  Each new customer draws more water keeping the system in perpetual strain.  This is not a sustainable model8.

Sustainabiltiy seems still a flexible concept in this early stage of its development.  Some people see it as breathing new life into the environmental movement.  Perhaps Las Vegas is the best test case for the meaning of the word.  (We’ll call it the New Nevada Test Site!) Sustainabiity is something that CEOs of large companies can grasp, act on, and sell to their shareholders.  Even Walmart is in on the game.  But others point out that the very fact that large companies are embracing sustainability is the reason why it is not a legitimate concept.  After all, Walmart’s whole business model is about the cheapest consumption of practically everything.  No matter how much they do to make their operations greener, their business model perpetuates an overconsumption of resources, the antithesis of sustainability.  Is the act of building CityCenter, no matter how greenly done, putting us on more or less a sustainable track?  If the answer is less sustainable, then the LEED achievements, no matter how great, are mere salesmanship.  The environmental activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen poses a hypothetical in his book, What We Leave Behind.  It goes:

“It’s easy to breakdown any process and say that this or that particular part of the process is sustainable.  If, for example, I were going to ‘push the button’ and blow up the entire world with nuclear weapons—which by any definition is not a sustainable activity—I could describe my thought processes as sustainable: my thought processes aren’t causing any damage at all.  I could describe walking over to the button as sustainable: me walking from here to there doesn’t cause any damage, especially if I’m wearing shoes made of recycled materials. I could describe me as pushing the button itself as sustainable: I’m just pushing a button, and how much harm can there be in that?  It’s only what happens afterwards—for which I need take no responsibility—that is not sustainable.  I am green as could be.”9

Shocking, but the point is made that if the USGBC’s only interest is in building methods and materials, and never what happens by the actual use of the building, we could build 100 more CityCenters in the desert and get a gold rating, or better, for each one.  Meanwhile, the resources that get consumed as a result of the activities of people who occupy all these buildings run out, the buildings then empty, and generations hence are left staring at abandoned hulks that collapse on themselves in a hundred years or more.  Staring at the empty ruins in the barren desert, one person will say to the other, “This was built to be sustainable.”  The other person will just laugh.

References:

1. The Sands Hotel, famous home of the Rat Pack, was demolished in 1996.
2. http://www.casinocitytimes.com/news/article/mgm-mirage-celebrates-20th-anniversary-191624
3. Price tag and inventory: http://www.vegastodayandtomorrow.com/citycenter.htm
4. LEED and other Environmental attributes: http://www2.citycenter.com/press_room/press_room_items.aspx?ID=778
5. Hotel rooms and annual visitors: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/citycenter-could-make-or-break-las-vegas-2009-11-20?pagenumber=1
6. $19 billion cost: http://www.airlines.org/economics/energy/fuel+QA.htm
7. Lake Mead water level: http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/hourly/rivops.html retrieved 11/24/2009
8. Impact of water levels, pricing, Lincoln County controversy: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=a_b86mnWn9.w&refer=home
9. Jensen, Derrick. What We Leave Behind. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009

Comments

  1. Jim says:

    One of the best things I’ve seen written in Scrutiny Hooligans this year, up there with Frank Rich’s Balloon Man essay, also featured in ScrooHoo at http://j.mp/7TVz1S

    I wish I could say that this doesn’t apply to anything in Asheville. Folks seem reluctant to fight– they say “I don’t know what sustainable means anymore”, as if it’s not in the dictionary, as if democracy-washing didn’t happen as well.

    If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

  2. uptown ruler says:

    all i can say is wow, mulroy. that was beautifully done.

  3. Joe Minicozzi says:

    Great piece Gordon! And all excellent points. There have been a bunch of folks (mostly planners trained as architects) that have had themselves a fit about LEED since it came out. LEED is not a panacea, just the start of the conversation, but everyone loves a checklist to administer a good idea. The problem is LEED never addresses the LOCATION of the building or how it relates to other buildings, ie, can you walk from one to the other. They’ve tried to deal with a lot of this over time, and LEED ND (Neighborhood Design) is in a perpetual state of release and has some good components in it that address the planning issues and those that you raise. Incidentally, several folks got together a few years ago to draft a localized version of LEED ND. I don’t know where it is, but Maggie at USGBC or David Tuch at Equinox should know.

    Anyhow, I figured you’d be interested in this:
    http://features.csmonitor.com/economyrebuild/2009/11/20/five-cities-that-will-rise-in-the-new-economy/

  4. EBNC says:

    Next time Tom Sullivan posts something to Scrutiny Hooligans, I’m totally going to leave a comment that says “Nice piece, Arianna!”