What Happens When A City Runs Out Of Water?

What would life be like in a city that's running out of water? With droughts and water shortages striking around the world, this question is becoming more and more urgent.

Jared Bales, a hydrologist and engineer with the USGS specializing in issues of water resources and quality, joined us today to take questions. And one person asked about what life in Las Vegas — a city already experiencing a low-level of water supplies — would look like in 20 years:

Lando Kardashian

Pretend you live in Las Vegas, you own a house, and you are squarely in the middle class (too poor to just buy something else, too rich to walk away unscathed) . What's your plan over the next 20 years? Even if you could move, where would you go? Where will the water be?


Las Vegas gets its water from the Colorado River. Water in the basin was allocated (or divided up among users) during a relatively wet period, so the assumption was that conditions at that time were typical. We now know that not to be the case, and there is increased completion for the water.

Because of lower water levels in Lake Mead on the Colorado River, the source of Las Vegas' water, the City is building a new, deeper intake for water withdrawals. This, of course, is an expensive proposition.

I think the Las Vegas example perhaps typifies future conditions. It seems highly unlikely that we will just abandon cities because of water shortages. Rather, water likely will cost more because of higher costs associated with obtaining water, treating wastewater to the degree that it can be re-used, and treating brackish water for human use.

You can read the rest of the Q&A — covering, among other things, just what we might expect for California's drought — right here.

Image: Las Vegas / Shayan