Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In August, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers. Today’s columnist is Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
To be certain, these are among the most difficult times we as a community and a nation have faced during this generation. While both the local and national economies are beginning to show signs of recovery, a sense of trepidation still lingers, and it will likely be several years before full confidence is restored.
The same holds true in terms of our water supply. The new millennium ushered in daunting challenges and, although the measures we have taken have been successful, our future remains uncomfortably tied to the caprice of nature.
For almost a decade now, an epic drought has been threatening our primary water supply, the Colorado River, which accounts for 90 percent of our water. Lake Mead’s receding shoreline has forced us to realize that even the country’s largest man-made reservoir is not immune to the effects of climate change.
A series of recent scientific studies all lead to the same conclusion: Shortage in the Colorado River is almost inevitable in the decades to come.
Realizing that one of the country’s most reliable systems of dams and reservoirs could dry up, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Colorado River Commission signed a historic accord in December 2007 to protect all the users in the seven Colorado River Basin states.
For Southern Nevada, this agreement added 80,000 acre feet to our water supplies (an increase of approximately 30 percent), protected our intakes in the lake, and allowed us to store water in other states that we can use during shortages.
Today, we are working with the other states, the U.S. Interior Department, the State Department, and federal officials in Mexico to conserve the river’s water, and to build ocean desalting facilities that can add to the river’s supplies. To assure that all these water supplies are available to Southern Nevada as long as possible, we are constructing a new drinking water intake that will be much deeper beneath the surface of Lake Mead.
As we move forward, building new facilities and working with our neighbors to protect the river’s waters, you, the residents of Southern Nevada, have defied this community’s critics by achieving phenomenal water savings.
Conservation measures that were enacted, including restrictions on the use of grass in new homes and businesses, mandatory watering schedules, and strict water budgets for golf courses, have been spectacularly successful.
The most compelling statistic is that our community consumed nearly 21 billion gallons less water than in 2002, despite the addition of 400,000 residents during that span.
Because of the conservation requirements and new land-use restrictions, new development in Southern Nevada has a very small “water footprint.” And with a new ethic of frugality, we have been transformed from an example of excess to a model for other Southwestern cities.
The stark reality is, however, that all these measures, while they may prolong our ability to use Colorado River water, cannot protect the community if the drought reaches catastrophic levels. Only a new water supply that is completely separate from the Colorado River can ensure the continued existence of our cities.
It is for that reason that the Southern Nevada Water Authority has requested the Nevada State Engineer’s permission to access unused, renewable ground water supplies in the east-central portion of our state. At present, we are simply completing all the necessary permitting and doing all the research needed to be able to use that water without harming the environment or other water users.
While today the Colorado River may still be available to us, we must complete the permitting process so we can be ready to build the needed facilities at a moment’s notice.
All of us at the Southern Nevada Water Authority hope that the time when we have to tap into these ground water supplies is in the distant future. We have been encouraged by improved snowfall in the Rockies, but we have also witnessed enormous evaporation of the snowfall due to dramatically warmer spring seasons and other phenomena.
In order to meet our obligation to ensure a reliable water supply for our community, we have to be prepared for the worst of circumstances. Then and only then will this be home to our children and grandchildren.