LAS VEGAS — It sits covertly in a sandy patch of shrub, an octagonal fiberglass box on the gaudiest avenue in America. 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.
It is a piece of sophisticated water technology every bit as remarkable as the 36-story glass pyramid and the replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza that tower across the street. And it is no accident that the first public utility in the country to deploy this technology is in Las Vegas.
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. And now it’s trying to leverage that reputation by turning itself into a hub for new and innovative water technology.
In the thirstiest city in the nation’s driest state (it gets just 4 inches of rain a year), water is the last thing Las Vegas wants to gamble on. After 16 years of drought, water levels in nearby Lake Mead, the city’s primary water source, have dropped so precipitously that white rings have formed on its banks. Las Vegas, like a bankrupt gambler who suddenly realizes that things have to change, has responded with a host of water conservation measures. New front lawns have been banned for years, and for those grandfathered in, the city actually pays residents to pull up their turf, like a gun buyback program. Golf courses are punished with attention-getting fines for exceeding their rationed allotments. And thanks to a robust recycling program that treats and returns to Lake Mead most of the city’s indoor water, even as the city has grown by half a million people since 2000, it has managed to slash its aggregate water use by a third. But that’s merely the most visible and easily measured success.
The water industry is by nature risk averse, since a mistake can have catastrophic health consequences (see Michigan; Flint). But with more pressure on water supplies around the United States and the world, innovation is increasingly important. 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. The utility boasts a state-of-the-art laboratory that produces ground-breaking research and a roster of scientists who routinely publish in major academic journals.
About 18 months ago, the region took an even bolder step forward. 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.
They created WaterStart, a tiny incubator that finds and tests promising water technologies and helps hasten them to market. 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.
A successful test by Las Vegas’ regional water utility can have a huge marketing impact for the company that devised the technology. Already, WaterStart has fielded a raft of inquiries from other cities about the hydrophones.
“Massively useful,” is how Alexis Smith puts it. Her firm, Intelligent Modeling Ltd., maps rain-induced flood patterns and is doing a test run with the Southern Nevada Water Authority right now. “We can use it as a springboard, it opens up the whole territory,” says Smith, who is British, referring to the North American market.
WaterStart has loftier goals than just running tests on innovative products that might help a water utility somewhere else. 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. In short, WaterStart amounts to a different kind of bet by Las Vegas: That as the world’s interest in water technology grows, it has a rare chance to seed an industry that will not only buttress the city against future downturns, but keep it growing.
Water has always been central to Las Vegas. It was an artesian spring, now long drained, that first drew travelers here in the mid-19th century. The natural oasis gave rise to the city’s name, which means “the meadows” in Spanish.
In 1922, Nevada cut a deal with six other states that gave the then sparsely populated state an annual allotment from the Colorado River. The 94-year old Colorado River Compact still governs the city’s water use. 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.
Amazingly, it still is enough, with room to spare. Rigorous conservation efforts don’t just outlaw front lawns, but also dictate when residents can water their flowers and wash their cars. And virtually every drop of water used indoors, which accounts for 40 percent of total water consumption, is treated, recycled and returned in near-drinkable quality to its source in Lake Mead 15 miles away. 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.
In a business filled almost exclusively with buttoned-down male civil engineers, Mulroy became a celebrity. 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.
Three years after taking over the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she helped push through a new umbrella agency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). The new central authority, which Mulroy ran for 23 years, encompassed the seven local, often squabbling, agencies in the Las Vegas valley. With a commodity as emotionally charged as water, an umbrella agency made it much easier to craft water resource strategies for the entire valley region.
“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.
From the start, Mulroy was well aware that if a water agency was to prosper in the middle of a desert, innovation had to become part of the agency’s DNA. “It’s a constantly changing science,” she says. New potential contaminants are always being discovered. “And the minute you find something,” she says, “somebody feels compelled to regulate it.”
In a tourist-dependent economy like Las Vegas, she adds, “with 40 million tourists a year, one water quality scare, and the cancellations start coming in the front door.”
In 1994, Mulroy experienced firsthand the perils of exactly that, when an outbreak of the waterborne parasitic disease cryptosporidiosis among people with AIDS in Las Vegas killed a reported 43 people and left about 100 ill. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story on the outbreak on a Friday, a day when an untold number of Angelenos normally would have been preparing to make the four-hour drive for their weekend pilgrimage. “It was not pretty,” Mulroy remembered.
At the time, the city’s water supply, like most of the rest of the country, was disinfected with chlorine. “Crypto,” as it is known, “literally laughs at chlorine,” says David Rexing, who runs the sleek SNWA laboratory in Henderson, about 30 miles outside the city, and was at the water authority during the outbreak. Rexing, 65, who has spent his entire career at the water authority, said Mulroy called her senior staff into her office. “I have one comment,” she said. “How do we prevent this from ever, ever happening again?”
“I said, ‘We’ll have to use ozone,’” recalled Rexing, referring to a very different water treatment common in Europe that does kill the cryptosporidium parasite as well as giardia. “‘Then it will be,” she said.
In fact, ozone is volatile and expensive, although Mulroy says now she “didn’t give a shit about the price.” Unlike chlorine, which can be shipped to the water treatment plant, ozone has to be generated on site. “You become a chemical manufacturer,” explains Rexing, which is one reason SNWA became one of the first major utilities, and still one of a relatively small number among the country’s 55,000 full-time public water systems, to use ozonation instead of chlorine.
Under Mulroy, the SNWA inked a deal in 2011 with Israel’s national water utility, Mekorot, which provides 90 percent of the country’s drinking water, to share water quality research. Israel’s 8.4 million people live in a desert climate very similar to Las Vegas, and water management, recycling water, and water-efficient irrigation are big issues in both places.
“One of the great problems in the water space is that people are always coming up with great ideas and trying to convince you that you need them,” says Mulroy. “People are always asking me about desalination. I say: ‘Where’s the flipping ocean?’”
And there’s a second issue: making sure there’s a place where promising technologies can make the leap between the controlled environment of a laboratory and the more uncompromising environment of a real water utility.
“Bridging that chasm between what works in the lab and what works in the real world, that can be an issue,” says Mulroy. “That’s when it falls apart. Because the innovator can’t cross that chasm to prove it’s usable in the utility space. Because no one wants to be Flint.”
Mulroy was one of the earliest proponents of WaterStart, and helped persuade Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to visit Israel for a major water conference in 2013. That in turn sparked the interest of the director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Steve Hill, who was able to provide WaterStart’s initial financial backing. Mulroy remains close to the action; she sits on the WaterStart board, helping to bridge the chasm between theoretical and actual.
Nate Allen, who was hired to run WaterStart in the fall of 2014, works standing up in a tiny, bare-bones office at the Desert Research Institute on East Flamingo Road, just down the road from Caesars Palace and the Bellagio. He has a chest-high desk, a cluttered bookshelf and a couple of steno chairs.
Allen, 36, is gregarious and earnest, and in the style of his generation, sports a substantial beard. There’s a small white board on the wall outside Allen’s office where he updates statistics such as “# of companies,” “$ grants awarded,” and “Other Income.” There’s one number that’s so important it’s written in capital letters and an exclamation point: “NEW JOBS FOR NEVADANS!”
In late March, that figure stood at a grand total of four.
To be fair, just two years ago, WaterStart was nothing more than a 19-page proposal submitted to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. And while the number is tiny by any standard, the pipeline to more jobs often starts small and then widens over time. There are now at least eight companies with whom WaterStart has inked a memorandum of understanding to vet their technology and, if it works, to have SNWA or another WaterStart member try it out.
More jobs outside of the gaming industry, in fact, is the main purpose behind WaterStart, whose genesis was the Great Recession that started in 2008. By 2011, says Hill, it was abundantly clear that the state’s supposedly unassailable economic engine had some serious vulnerabilities.
“The gaming industry, which had led the economy for longer than I’ve been in the state, was prior to the recession seen as recession-proof,” says Hill, who’s lived here for nearly three decades, and is on the WaterStart board. “We realized that was not the case.”
Starting in 2008, the number of visitors to Las Vegas fell for two straight years. Unemployment ballooned to 14.4 percent by 2010, the highest in the country. It wasn’t until 2012 before the annual tourist count returned to pre-2008 levels. “It’s hard to overstate how bad the situation was,” says Hill.
Enter Assembly Bill 449, the 2011 Nevada Assembly Bill that completely revamped the state’s economic development model, abolishing local development authorities and setting up a structure that tried to overcome the state’s traditional north (read Reno) south (read Las Vegas) divide. The number of professional staff members was more than doubled, and economic development became a cabinet-level department whose boss now reported directly to the newly elected Republican Governor Sandoval.
The bill set up a $10 million catalyst fund that could be used to make grants or loans or investments in businesses that wanted to expand in Nevada or relocate here, and established a separate “knowledge fund” that would help researchers at the state’s university system as well as the Desert Research Institute to commercialize technology. It was a $1.6 million state grant in 2015 that provided the start-up money for WaterStart, including $500,000 to vet and test new water technology.
Technology incubators, accelerators or clusters depend on the proximity of industry and academia (with a bit of seed money thrown in) to spark innovation. The problem, says Allen, is what happens next? “How do I actually get someone to use what I’ve invented? They need to find a customer. That’s the last step. Except from my perspective, it’s really the first step. What our play is, that people keep telling us is unique … is that we really take companies that have a technology all ready to market, but can’t find a first customer.”
“It’s superimportant,” agrees Ian Hathaway, who earlier this year published a Brookings Institution paper on startup accelerator programs in the United States. “It’s difficult for start-ups to get customer traction, to get in with a customer,” he adds.
In the world that WaterStart has created, that problem has been solved because the first customer is a WaterStart member: the SNWA, one of the country’s biggest water utilities, or Truckee Meadows Water Authority, which covers Reno and Sparks in the north; one of the city’s biggest casino operators, MGM Resorts International; Winnemucca Farms, the state’s biggest agricultural company; and, eventually, a major mining company in a state that produces three-quarters of the nation’s gold.
WaterStart member companies not only help pay to test promising technologies, but they agree to try them out themselves.
WaterStart also solves the other entrepreneurial conundrum—How do I know who wants my product?—by making it clear what its member companies are looking for first, rather than forcing the budding inventor to guess.
“If you go to the procurement department of a potential client, they say, ‘Get lost,’” says Allen. “So starting by defining what the utility needs is really powerful.”
And while it might seem that a major water utility in the age of the Internet would have no problem finding solutions to any problem, because even a dilettante inventor today no doubt has a Web page, it’s not nearly that simple. Dave Johnson, deputy general manager of engineering and operations for SNWA and the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which provides the city’s drinking water, says what he’s looking for are not the kind of things you’d discover with a Google search.
“What we find is that the things that hit the technical journals are typically established products,” he says. “Innovations swim in a different vein, especially bleeding edge technologies,” adds Johnson, referring to technologies even newer than so-called leading edge but often little more than a concept and a patent filing.
“You have to be a little more surgical with the ideas you’re looking for,” he says, adding, “There are so many folks out there with snake oil.”
Cindy Ortega, MGM Resorts International’s chief sustainability officer, cuts an incongruous figure with her yellow hardhat and pale-blue handbag, an assistant and company PR chief in dutiful tow. Workers are just finishing what MGM says is the first park on the entire Strip, a bit of nature in an oasis of Vegas artifice, sandwiched between MGM’s New York New York hotel and casino and the new T-Mobile Arena.
Corporate hyperbole aside, MGM is in fact a leader in green building in the casino and resort industry. Its massive CityCenter complex down the street, fronted by the Aria Resort and Casino, was built to Gold LEED certification, second highest among the four categories in the green-building certification program. MGM says that means the carbon footprint of its guests is 30 percent smaller than at other resorts.
MGM became a WaterStart member in March, a big catch for the fledgling incubator. “We do so much by letting them associate with our name,” says Ortega, adding quickly, “but they also bring a lot to me—they’ll vet the crazies.”
Ortega says eight of every nine MGM employees are involved in water, from spa attendants to bartenders to dishwashers to gardeners. So for a company that posted revenues of $9.2 billion last year, reducing usage by even a few gallons per week for each of its 60,000 employees can have a measurable impact on the bottom line. A lot of water savings comes from simple changes in behavior, she says. “At the Monte Carlo, when they clean the bathtub now, they fill a pitcher with water and scrub the tub instead of leaving the water on the whole time.”
Ortega’s biggest problem, however, is even more fundamental: evaporation from swimming pools and the giant water-fed cooling towers the company uses to keep its hotel and casino guests comfortable. That’s by far MGM’s major source of “consumptive” use—water that once used is gone forever, rather than treated and returned to its source.
Ortega and her staff are constantly fielding inquiries from inventors who claim their products, when added to the water, will slow the evaporation. “There is no shortage of innovators,” she says. “I’ve had people bring me additives more expensive than my face cream—and my face cream is really expensive,” she says, lamenting the difficulty of finding an inventor with a product she’s actually willing to use in her big-ticket infrastructure. “But in order for you to build something I’m going to put in a $400,000 cooling tower, how long would it take for the guy to find Cindy?”
That’s where WaterStart comes in. “WaterStart attracts the innovators to a central place; it’s basically extending our team to keep an eye on the market for us.” (And, she might have added, it lets MGM avoid the usual process of finding new technology through outside consultants, who often have their own biases and favored products they like to push on clients.)
“Early on, Nate came to us and said, ‘What are your pain points?’” recalls Don Johnson (no relation to Dave Johnson), MGM’s senior manager of sustainability. After cooling towers, it’s finding a more sophisticated irrigation system that will provide the precise amount of water needed for each species of plant—and no more. At the new park, which is planted with native and desert-adaptive plants, there are soil sensors to measure moisture levels, and two sets of valves in each planter to provide differing amounts of water.
“The thing that pains me, that seems like common sense,” he says, “is why we can’t optimize the water needs and usage based upon the evapotranspiration of each plant. We need to get to the next level, from a theoretical analysis to actual water need.”
Right now, the SNWA is vetting an Israeli product that lets a utility monitor the remotest pipelines in its 500-square-mile district with a plastic unit about the size of an outstretched hand. It’s a company called Ayyeka that Allen has been nurturing for about a year.
WaterStart’s network of formal and informal contacts has been a useful conduit to broaching the market, and not just with SNWA but other potential clients.
“The problem for us is that the water industry in the United States is a fragmented market, there’s a lot of infrastructure, and it’s very conservative,” says Sivan Cohen, an American civil engineer who moved to Israel three years ago and is Ayyeka’s director of business development. “You work through relationships, not online advertising. A cold call takes at least double or triple the time than does the very warm lead you get with WaterStart.”
Allen says Ayyeka’s ‘plug and play’ unit, which is attached to a remote pipe with two belt straps, is “killing it,” and SNWA seems happy. The unit does not need to be configured to work; it is simply plugged into a node that has up to three sensor ports. Each port measures water flow, pressure or quality using information like water temperature, pH, and turbidity. Depending on the number of ports, it sells for anywhere from $1,600 to $8,000, says Cohen.
“The data’s interrogated once a day,” explains SNWA’s public outreach chief Bronson Mack, showing off two of the units attached to a collection of intensely white pipes gleaming in the Nevada sun. “It’s collecting data we otherwise couldn’t get—how the water is flowing through the system, any changes within the water chemistry, all early indicators of any issues going on.”
The beauty of the system, says Mack, is that it provides daily monitoring of facilities far from the main Las Vegas office, like the water system in Searchlight, Nevada, home of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “So we’re not rolling trucks and spending windshield time commuting from remote sites to get the same data we could get instantly through an installation like this.”
Cohen says the company plans to keep its research and development in Israel, but as soon as there’s enough business in the U.S., to bring its sales, business development and marketing staff to Nevada.
That’s exactly what another Israeli company called Outlocks eventually hopes to do as well once it finishes its SNWA trial run this month. Security is a big deal at the country’s more than 150,000 public drinking water systems; even at the SNWA laboratory, visitors have to “badge up” before they can go inside.
“Nate Allen was looking for a solution for security issues and safety issues they had in reservoirs and pools—poisoning, sabotage, terrorism—by controlling who enters what area, when they enter, and where,” explains company director Hillel Mordkowicz.
“The problem is that if someone loses a key, there is 24 hours of vulnerability—the whole system is worth nothing,” he says. Instead, Outlocks uses a fob and an app. When someone needs to enter a locked room, a smartphone app is activated, which receives an encrypted code. That code is keyed into the fob, and the fob is placed against the door. The fob then transmits the code to the lock with a series of audible pulses that sound like knocks.
The knocks, says Mordkowicz, are like “going back to the Stone Age. There’s nothing here that can be recorded. It’s all mechanical. As an Israeli, I can tell you, you can’t open them unless you blow them up.”
Adds the SNWA’s Dave Johnson: “These guys met an organizational need. And we’ve given Outlocks a place to demonstrate it. It if works, Nevada will be its hub.”
While WaterStart is run from Las Vegas, and has a particularly close relationship with that city’s water utility, there are other industries across the state that have their own innovative water technology wish list.
At the other end of Nevada, in the mild desert of the north, WaterStart is co-funding an unmanned aerial drone project for Winnemucca Farms, which grows potatoes, wheat, snap peas, alfalfa and corn on 16,000 acres. Like MGM, it’s also trying to fine-tune its irrigation system, testing different cameras and filters for a more “specific example of crop health, whether a plant is overwatered or underwatered, whether there’s an insect infestation, the effects of herbicides or pesticides and fertilizer,” says Sam Routson, a former Pentagon official and Senate chief of staff who’s Winnemucca Farms’ chief administrative officer.
“If there’s a hot wind blowing down through the valley and the humidity starts to drop and the little stomatas on the plant leaves start to close and the plant’s not putting energy in growing tubers, you’re losing production,” he says. “And when you’re talking about the size of a farming operation we have, even a small improvement can make a big difference.”
There is a paradox to water. While it is important enough to be sacred in much of the world— the transparent liquid without which life cannot exist—it’s also taken for granted. Even in a desert city like Las Vegas, with its myriad watering restrictions and a depleting Lake Mead reservoir, it’s unimaginable that it won’t always flow, clean, unimpeded—and safe—from the tap.
“The power goes out every now and then,” notes Hill. “The water doesn’t.”
To get to this level of certitude, however, requires a constant stream of innovation, to meet both the “ever stringent demands on water quality and the every tighter demands on capital for operational costs,” says Piers Clark, a former director at Thames Water, London’s principal water utility, who now runs his own consultancy and has helped WaterStart in its hunt for new water technology. “There are lots of widgets here,” he adds. “And most of the innovative technology involves relatively small adoptions.”
Those 13 EchoShore TX hydrophones listening for leaks along the Strip’s 30-inch transmission main, the city’s carotid artery of water, are a good example. Acoustic leak detection devices are nothing new. But they usually listen, and are then taken away.
Charlie Fricke of Echologics, a Canadian company that specializes in leak detection systems, says the Las Vegas hydrophones mark the first time a public utility has permanently monitored a main waterline with an acoustic technology that can actually pinpoint leaks as soon as they occur.
The trouble with leaks, aside from the fact that they waste 6 billion gallons of water a day nationally, is that undetected over time, they can erode the soil beneath a water main until a pipe simply gives way, collapses into a sinkhole and bursts. That’s a catastrophic scenario that Las Vegas, where tourists account for a third of its $95 billion annual GDP, can’t even begin to contemplate.
EchoShore’s system pinpoints the location of the leak using a signal processing algorithm that correlates how long it takes the sound created by the leak to travel through the pipe to the listening nodes on either side. When a leak is found, EchoShore will dutifully call, text or email engineers at SNWA to let them know.
Detecting leaks is important for its own reasons, but it is also philosophically in tune with the water industry’s overarching agenda, to become a technically savvy industry integrated into the mainstream of smartphone apps and big data. “Fifteen years ago, water technology meant you’d find an old lag who’d worked for the water company for 20 years, and finally seen something he thought might work,” says Clark. “Nowadays, more companies are like Internet startups, using big data with networks, mobile phones, social media. It’s about getting information on your asset.”
If MGM’s Johnson, for example, had a better idea of how much water each constituent part of the MGM empire was using, it would be easier to use less. With the right sub-metering you could pit the Starbucks at one MGM property against the Starbucks at another, “creating a competition aspect” that would allow you to say: ‘”Let’s see if we can reduce water consumption by 10 to 20 percent,”’ he explains. “Let’s see which Starbucks, which restaurant, can use the least amount of water.”
So far, the water startup culture Allen and his team are trying to create, though still in its infancy, has shown measurable progress, and there are promising signs for the future.
“Nevada is the driest state in the U.S., always was, always will be,” notes Allen. “And we’re not known for having a tech community. But we’re willing to take a little risk to be the first adopter of a technology in order to solve a specific problem. And we have a cluster of first adopters who are identifying their own challenges.”
During a trade mission last summer to London and Ireland, Allen says, “We had 26 companies stop by and express an interest. We received 17 proposals. Eight were worth calling back. Three are now under contract,” he adds, with a fourth soon expected.
Ultimately, the expectation is that this process will lead to a virtuous circle: the commercialization of new water technology that will lead to a specialized workforce which in turn will attract more water technology companies in need of those same specialized workers.
“We’ve now figured out the process of recruiting small companies with new technologies,” says Allen. “The question now is: ‘How do we recruit large established companies that want a larger presence in the West or want a presence that’s part of the ecosystem we’re building here?’”
Allen’s hoping to meet his goal of 10 companies recruited to Las Vegas by July, which will be a year after WaterStart received its first state grant money. Each of those companies is in turn projecting that it will bring an average of three or four jobs to Nevada within a year after that. “It’s like a supply chain,” he adds. “You have to start way down at the end.”
Ask Allen what he thinks the NEW JOBS FOR NEVADANS! line on his whiteboard will display in five years, and he hesitates, in part because the WaterStart board does not have a formal five-year goal.
“Three hundred,” he says, after a bit of prodding. “I’d love to blow that number out of the water. Who wouldn’t? And right now, I don’t think that’s crazy unrealistic.”
Powered by WPeMatico