Las Vegas Bets on Becoming a Hub for Water Innovation

The nation's driest city wants to market its water-saving efforts to the rest of the world.

As the nation’s driest big city, Las Vegas knows a thing or two about water. With a metro population of more than 2 million people and just 4 inches of rain a year, the city has learned how to be very, very frugal. Now it’s taking that water consciousness -- and all the years of experimentation it’s driven—and using it to transform itself into a hub for new and innovative water technologies.

Long a leader in water conservation, Las Vegas has kept its water use down through a combination of fines, enforcement, incentives, education and innovation. For instance, front lawns have been banned for years. For those homeowners grandfathered in, the city pays them to rip up their grass. Golf courses pay huge penalties when they exceed their water budgets. And the city recycles most of the indoor water used.

It’s this experience that the city, in partnership with the state, the regional water utility, the University of Nevada and private industry, hopes to build on. The group has teamed up to create WaterStart, an incubator that tests promising water technologies and then helps companies bring those innovations to market. 

Of course, this isn’t just about water. It’s about jobs, too. The idea was dreamed up in 2014 -- in the wake of the Great Recession. For an economy dependent on tourism, officials are hoping that the companies WaterStart helps will stay in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas will have some company, though. Milwaukee started setting itself up as a water hub back in 2013. Still, Las Vegas already has some nifty new technologies and partnerships it’s piloting through the WaterStart incubator.

High-Tech Hydrophones

Late last year, 13 rectangular boxes were installed along the Las Vegas Strip. Inside each one is an acoustic device the size of a fist that listens for the faintest noise emitted by leaks along a 3-mile section of aging pipe. The idea is that these sensors, or hydrophones -- microphones designed to be used underwater for recording or listening -- will detect a pipeline leak before a catastrophic rupture.

The PipeMinder

Where the hydrophone hears leaks, the so-called PipeMinder sees leaks and other stresses on water systems. The device, through high-resolution data capture, lets a water utility identify where it’s at greatest risk of pipeline failure. The Southern Nevada Water Authority in the Las Vegas metro area will test the gadget, which hopefully will help utilities prioritize infrastructure maintenance based on where it’s needed most.


Winnemucca Farms in the northern part of the state is using drones to measure plant stress from the air in an effort to improve irrigation precision. The unmanned aerial vehicles will be able to tell farmers where water is being used efficiently and where it’s not.

The Israeli Connection

Nevada, the driest state in the U.S., is partnering with Israel, one of the most arid nations in the world, to bring two Israeli startups stateside. The company Ayyeka produces sensors that can monitor water temperatures and levels in remote storage tanks; Outlocks works on physical security for facilities owned by water utilities.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.