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Pirate Ships, Fountains: Extravagant Water Use Hits Upper Limits

THEME parks with white-water raft rides. Housing developments with multiple golf courses and artificial lakes. Casinos with spraying fountains. A hotel moat holding giant pirate ships.

Besides usual water needs, Las Vegas has developed an entertainment aqua-culture that has pushed average, per-capita water use to twice the national average.

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One niggling detail: The city calls the Mojave Desert its home, where four inches of rain falls annually and summer temperatures often reach 110 degrees.

``We live a way of life here that practically guarantees we'll waste more water than anywhere in the US,'' says James Deacon, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. With its aqua-culture and 28.2 million visitors last year, the city uses three times the average of other cities in arid regions such as Los Angeles and Tucson, Ariz. At current rates of usage, the city will be out of water by 2006.

``You won't be able to build another home or business by then,'' says Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

For now, she and other Las Vegas officials are pushing for new water sources on three major fronts. Top among the plans is to change the Colorado River allocations. Seven states divvy up this water under a pact known as the ``law of the river.'' Nevadans argue that when the pact was designed in the 1920s, no one knew the sands of Clark County would someday support a metropolis. And Las Vegas is expected to double in size by 2050.

``The reality of where people live has changed and the laws should accommodate that change,'' says Ms. Mulroy. Of 18 million acre feet of water allotted from the river, California gets 7.5 million, Arizona gets 4.4 million, and Nevada gets 300,000, she says. ``Any law that doesn't bend with time will collapse.''

The problem, says Dennis Underwood, former executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, is that one state's allotment affects availability for every other state. And few interests want to yield.

But Bob Schempp, assistant chief of planning for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, says California's recent six-year drought and Nevada's increasing needs are forcing new insights into how to better save and allocate water between wet and dry years.

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Two other plans are on the drawing boards. One would take a sizable allotment from the Virgin River, which flows through Zion National Park in Utah. The other would tap into a network of underground basins, drawing water from aquifers that feed 20,000 acres of wilderness, ranch country, and national parks.

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