'Las Venice' swims against tide of water conservation Casino owners want to build canals in Vegas.


LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- This wind-blown oasis of neon signs already boasts a downtown intersection called "Glitter Gulch," where the blazing marquees of Binion's Horseshoe, the Four Queens, the Fremont and the Golden Nugget keep things bright around the clock.

The lights of New York's Times Square, Chicago's Magnificent Mile and Paris' Champs d'Elysees pale in comparison to the gulch. But now the uniquely American entrepreneurs who rule this desert gambling mecca want to take on another global attraction -- Venice, Italy.

Although Las Vegas is experiencing drought conditions so extreme that a violation of the sprinkling ordinance can carry a six-month jail sentence, a consortium of casino owners hopes to fill parts of downtown's three busiest streets with water and float gondolas on the resulting 22-foot-wide canals.

The developers, led by Steve Wynn, owner of the Golden Nugget casino and Mirage Hotel, want to line the waterways with 80-foot-wide promenades dotted with palm trees and gazebos. Canal planners say the $25 million plan would allow downtown Las Vegas, now a haunt for the more rough-and-tumble gambling set, to draw the same kind of crowds that flock to the family-oriented resorts on the nearby Casino Strip.

The "Las Venice" plan -- which perhaps could fly only in a world where the doors never close, the dancing never stops and there's always the next roll of the dice -- would use recycled wastewater rather than fresh water from the Colorado River. That would make the canals a symbol of the city's resolve to survive its drought and growth problems, Wynn said. But others warn that filling the streets with water -- even recycled water -- would draw added attention to Las Vegas as the West's leading water wastrel.

Now the city faces the same problems that vex planners throughout the arid Southwest and are forcing policymakers to weigh economic growth against fast-dwindling water supplies.

A consortium of the 11 largest casino-hotel operators in downtown Las Vegas has agreed to put $25 million in a "Fantasy Park" fund that would allow construction of the canals to begin early this fall. Completion is scheduled for May.

Water runoff from irrigating golf courses, lawn sprinkling and drained swimming pools would be recaptured from underground ponds beneath the city's streets. It would be cleaned and pumped into the downtown canal system by a $700,000 water-treatment plant. That means the city would suck no more water than it does now from the West's already overtaxed reservoirs, Wynn said.

The original plan, he acknowledged, had been to use drinking water to fill the streets, but that was abandoned because developers knew it would bring complaints.

Chris Brown, director of the Las Vegas office of the activist group Citizen Alert, said many farmers, ranchers and environmentalists would oppose the new plan because they have long advocated using recycled wastewater to replace the drinking water that is being poured into golf courses, swimming pools and artificial lakes.

"In essence they took our idea for reusing wastewater to make up for existing excesses and decided to use it to build still more excesses instead," said Brown.

The farmers and ranchers joined Citizen Alert after Las Vegas developers announced that the city would seek additional water from the aquifers that support the state's agricultural users.

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