Water and growth - Study must dispel 'raise the drawbridge' myths

Las Vegas Review Journal Editorial

Las Vegas, Nevada - 9/28/03 - The cascading clamor by neighborhood activists to put the clamps on growth in the Las Vegas Valley has pressed some local officials into action: The board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority has commissioned an outside study of the impact various "slow growth" or "no growth" plans might have on the local economy. The study will be led by Guy Hobbs, the former county budget manager who also chaired the Governor's Task Force on Tax Policy, with assistance from UNLV economist Keith Schwer and UNR economist Thomas Harris. It will then be reviewed by researchers from Harvard University, the University of California and Rutgers University.

A comprehensive, independent analysis of the consequences of growth restrictions should do no harm. Indeed, it might actually offer a needed antidote to the mindless rhetoric of the pitchfork-wielding, "raise the drawbridge" rabble who act as if continued development is calamitous. It would be useful to see contrary evidence to the pernicious notion that growth could somehow be halted -- or even slowed -- using the heavy hand of government regulation while leaving the Las Vegas economy undisturbed.

It is encouraging to see little sympathy for this theory among the members of the water authority's board. First-term Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid got it right on Thursday: "I would say to those who say we should stop growth tomorrow, that would probably be simplistic."

Indeed. A moratorium on new residential construction permits, even if temporary, would do more than put the region's 75,000 workers in the building trades -- Southern Nevada's second-largest employer -- on the dole; it would lead to a collapse in the local economy. Newcomers do more than provide work for carpenters, electricians, plumbers and their fellow tradesmen. They create jobs throughout the valley ... by patronizing local merchants, frequenting dining and entertainment establishments, and directly investing in their community with the new businesses they start.

The study's authors need to do more than analyze the impacts of growth controls on the local economy. Because Southern Nevada's vitality is dependent upon securing a dependable, affordable supply of water, the authors should also investigate ways to locate new water sources.

To date, local water officials have relied on "demand reduction" -- imposing mandatory conservation measures -- and investigating innovative means of banking water for long-term use. There's also been talk of financing a desalination plant in Southern California to provide additional (retained) water to Las Vegas.

Conservation alone won't provide enough water in the longer term to serve Southern Nevada's current population -- let alone its new residents and future entrepreneurial activities. And at this point, water produced from desalination is much too expensive to become a principal component of area water supplies.

Any blueprint for local policy-makers will require bold and creative thinking by researchers and water authority officials alike. The obsolete Law of the River -- which set in stone water allocations from the Colorado River more than 80 years ago -- will need to be revamped. The construction of additional storage facilities and compacts to purchase water from other states (not to mention the funding to transport the new supplies here) should be on the agenda as well.

Without new and reasonably priced supplies of water, cries for "no growth" may be impossible to resist.A moratorium on new residential construction permits ... would lead to a collapse in the local economy.


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