With the country facing the worst drought in decades, simmering conflicts over water are coming to a boil all over the country. And almost no place has more serious water issues than Las Vegas.

A reservoir fed by the overburdened Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s water, could be exhausted by 2021. The Las Vegas Sun has been running a multi-media series about the history and future of the area’s water.

With the looming threat of a dry reservoir, the area’s water authority is planning a pipeline to take water from under the desert and transport it more than 300 miles to the city. The authority is buying up water rights and ranches to the east of Las Vegas.

The situation sets up a classic city-versus-country conflict. Ranchers and others outside the city say the pipeline would devastate their rural way of life, destroy wildlife and turn huge stretches of land into dead, dusty space. But the water authority and many city dwellers argue that the state couldn’t survive without Las Vegas. The Vegas strip alone provides 70 percent of Nevada’s gross state product. Supporters of the pipeline also say growing crops like alfalfa in the desert is far from an optimal use of water.

The state engineer will have the final call about whether the pipeline is an acceptable solution to Las Vegas’s problem.

Las Vegas has already implemented a range of programs to reduce water use in the city, including incentives to plant local, drought-resistant plants instead of traditional water-hungry lawns. Seventy percent of residential water use is for landscaping.

Still, everyone involved seems to agree that no amount of conservation will allow Las Vegas to survive without an influx of water from a new source. The city is allowed 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River. It actually uses 440,000, returning treated wastewater to the river in exchange for the permission to use the extra 140,000 acre-feet.

Ultimately, the question raised by the water shortage in Las Vegas is a familiar one: how can finite—and even shrinking—resources support a growing population?

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