So sorry to have missed the overhyped snow dump last week — we went to Las Vegas. The weather was somewhat chilly, but we enjoyed our vaccinated release from COVID captivity. The plane was full, the streets were thronged with masked multitudes and restaurants were cheerfully busy. 

England may have its royal family, but America has Vegas. The royals have palaces, property and rivers of money flowing to an ancient queen and her heirs, while Vegas is vulgar, glitzy, diverse, egalitarian and welcoming — just bring cash!

We took a short, inexpensive and uncomfortable direct flight from the Springs, and headed for the Bellagio’s three-day bargain package. Our room was comfortable enough, although overlooking a dismal industrial landscape behind the hotel. 

Like the other mega-hotels along the strip, the Bellagio is a curious beast. Imagine multiple interior tourist destinations, a casino, a hyper-expensive super-mall and floods of gawkers. Employees were without exception cheerful, polite and competent. It’s fun — but remember, you’re just one of thousands of marks, there to smile happily as your money disappears like mist in the desert air.

Can a city of mega-resorts built on gambling, hedonism, greed and gullibility survive? To a casual visitor, the city’s a mirage, an unsustainable mess plopped down in an unforgiving desert. As drought in the West becomes the new normal and Vegas continues to grow, where will the water come from? 

We were glad to be back in Colorado Springs. We’re blessed with a diverse, growing economy and enough water to support decades of growth. Compared to Vegas, we’re a paragon of sustainability and common sense… or are we?

Colorado Springs and Las Vegas have one thing in common: dependence on the Colorado River. 

“The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people in seven western states, including Colorado Springs residents,” according to the Colorado Springs Utilities website. “The 1922 Colorado River Compact splits those states into Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) and Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), and sets the amount of water that must be available to the Lower Basin from the Upper Basin.

How likely is it that we will be asked to relinquish water to shore up supplies in those states? Nearly two decades of persistent drought in the West, combined with historically low levels in their storage reservoirs ­— Lakes Powell and Mead — make it a very real possibility … up to 70% of our community’s water supply comes from the Colorado River Basin but, like many other municipalities on the Front Range, our water rights on the western slope were secured after the compact was put in place. Thus, Front Range water providers will bear the brunt of producing water for a curtailment.”

Our city is a verdant oasis, largely irrigated by water imported from the Colorado River. In an arid land, our wasteful ways cannot endure indefinitely. Sooner or later, we’ll have to give up our lawns and radically transform our city. We’ll have to learn from the West’s most sustainable city… yup, Las Vegas.

Vegas relies almost entirely on the Colorado River, but Nevada’s compact allocation is comparatively small. For two decades, the city has paid residents to tear out their lawns, effectively ending private landscape irrigation. All indoor water use is recycled and returned to Lake Mead, radically reducing the city’s consumptive use. That has allowed to the city to grow and thrive without new sources of water.

Could Colorado Springs make a relatively painless transition to lower water use? Let’s start by understanding the biggest water hogs. According to John Entsminger, who heads the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the three largest consumptive uses of Colorado River water are pasture grass, alfalfa, and city lawns. Get rid of the grass, and there are no water supply problems. 

Could we grow, prosper and still enjoy our green, tree-shaded city by incentivizing homeowners to replace turf grass with drought-friendly landscaping? Maybe. Vegas started at $1 per square foot, gradually increasing to $3. It’d be a 20-year process, and one sure to be derided by our city’s conservative grandees. Yet if the next 20 years brings multiple Compact calls and compulsory reductions in statewide water use, appropriate planning could save our oasis.

And if not, no worries — I’ll be safely entombed in the no longer Evergreen Cemetery…

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.