Inside is a fist-size hydrophone, one of 13 acoustic devices that listen continuously for the minutest of leaks along a miles-long pipeline that daily spits out 7.5 million gallons of water to hotels and casinos along the Las Vegas strip. Story Continued Below If Las Vegas is the most profligate place on earth, where chance is king and the future is routinely gambled away, it is also possibly the most frugal and forward-looking American city in one respect: water.Las Vegas’ focus on water—and the constant pressure on its supply—has driven years worth of public experimentation, establishing the area’s umbrella water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, as a nationally recognized leader in water quality treatment.In a move driven in part by Nevada’s near-collapse during the Great Recession, the state, the city, the University of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, the regional water authority and private industry teamed up to turn that reputation for water innovation into a catalyst for job creation.Technologies, for example, to remove nitrates from well water; that use drones to measure plant stress from the air to improve irrigation precision; or, as with those nondescript listening devices stashed along the Strip, to detect leaks before they can cause millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.Commercially viable companies helped by WaterStart pledge to set up shop in Las Vegas or elsewhere in the state, which over time could bring a different set of jobs to a tourism-dependent economy that has experienced dangerous downturns in recent years.It was an artesian spring, now long drained, that first drew travelers here in the mid-19th century.At the time, that allotment of 300,000 acre-feet (one acre-foot is the amount of water covering one acre of land one-foot deep, about 325,000 gallons) was more than enough to satisfy a state with fewer than 100,000 people, and a population of fewer than 5,000 in the Las Vegas valley.That’s a highly unusual feat for a water agency, but it’s also a crucial water management tool: for every gallon returned, the city gets credit and can take another gallon out, and it’s not counted against its water allotment. Much of this is the legacy of one person, Patricia Mulroy, who arrived here in 1974 to study German literature at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, went to work for Clark County in 1978—home to the city of Las Vegas—and by 1989 was running the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the biggest water utility in the Valley.Charismatic and often abrasive, she was known alternately as the city’s Water Czar and its Water Witch, after a brazen move to buy up unclaimed groundwater in eastern Nevada and bring it to Las Vegas on a still-unbuilt 300-mile underground pipeline—an emergency reserve if Lake Mead continues its decline. “It was harder in the beginning, between being called ‘little lady,’ and ‘Patty,’ and ‘Chief Chick,’” says Mulroy, 63, who retired in 2014 and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Mountain West campus at UNLV. “You can mine their coal, and take their gas, but the moment you take a drop of water, they go insane,” says Mulroy, in an obvious allusion to her eastern Nevada groundwater project, which has been tied up in litigation for more than a decade.WHAT WORKS By Ben Wofford 2016 By Doug Sosnik The Friday Cover By Michael Hirsh A yearlong reported series from Politico Magazine , featuring innovative ideas—and how they spread—from cities across the United States at a time of unprecedented urban reinvention.
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