Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 | 2 a.m.
As a Clark County commissioner, part of my job is to make tough calls that affect people’s lives and livelihoods. That is why I think it’s important to find out the facts rather than rush to judgment.
Water is an important topic everywhere, but it is especially critical here in Southern Nevada. The 2 million people who call our community home have chosen to live in the driest desert in North America. Originally, when Las Vegas was nothing more than a whistle-stop, our local ground-water supply was enough. Eventually, as we became one of the world’s most popular resort destinations and a magnet for jobs and retirees, we had to tap the Colorado River.
The bad news is that Nevada’s share of the river, which was divvied up about 80 years ago, is by far the smallest of any of the seven states that share its flows. And, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with growth in Las Vegas. In fact, we used nearly 21 billion gallons less water last year than we did in 2002, despite the extra 400,000 people who moved here during that span.
Drought is about Mother Nature reminding us that we are merely renters, and she can be as cruel as she is capricious.
The way we acquire and conserve water in the Southwest has evolved over the years and is intertwined with the Law of the River — specifically the Colorado River — and the seven basin states that negotiated the Colorado River Compact in 1922.
In the early 1920s, before the advent of air conditioning and legalized gaming, with very little agriculture and fewer than 3,000 people living in Southern Nevada, few would have imagined a booming metropolis like Las Vegas. So, when the river water was apportioned, Nevada got the short end of the stick, coming out with 300,000 acre-feet per year. This compares with California’s 4.4 million acre-feet and Arizona’s 2.85 million. Their allotments were generous slices of the pie, while ours was but a tiny sliver.
Now, almost 90 years later, some say we should challenge this allocation and get a higher percentage. However, one of the other six states would have to be willing to give up a portion of its water and that will never happen. Others say we should go to court. Arizona found out how fruitless that is. Officials there challenged the entire compact from its inception until 1944 with one court battle after another until Arizona’s leaders realized their quest was futile.
But it is what it is. We can’t dismiss the fact that 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply comes from the Colorado River. That is why a prolonged drought has been so devastating.
Southern Nevada has been successful at stretching those 300,000 acre-feet to more than 500,000 acre-feet by using return-flow credits. Apportionments are based on consumptive use, which means we can divert more water than our allocation as long as we return that water back to the river. All water used indoors can be treated at wastewater facilities and returned to the Colorado River. The water used outdoors is wasted and cannot be recycled.
We have also been highly successful with conservation campaigns such as the Water Smart Landscapes program, which has provided rebates for every square foot of grass removed and replaced with drought-tolerant plants.
Thanks to the people of Southern Nevada, and the conservation efforts you have practiced, we have been able to use nearly 21 billion gallons less water this year than in 2002. That is quite a remarkable accomplishment.
But it is not enough. While other basin states can temporarily lease Colorado River water from farmers when times get tough — for instance, California’s farmers alone use more than 10 times Nevada’s entire allocation — our state has no buffer to protect us from drought. So we need all the friends and all the flexibility we can get.
A 2007 agreement related to Colorado River operations provided that flexibility, with everyone getting what they needed most. For their part, the upstream states escape an ironclad obligation to release a certain amount of water from Lake Powell each year that was the source of great concern for them given the unpredictable nature of the river. The Lower Basin states of Nevada, California and Arizona got the opportunity to gain additional water in Lake Mead if conditions in Lake Powell are good enough, which they were last year. As a result, Lake Mead is about seven feet higher right now than it would have been had the pact not been signed.
But the solution cannot be limited to this agreement. The stakes are simply too high. No society can survive for long without a reliable water supply. Southern Nevada needs to explore every available option — from desalination partnerships and the responsible use of Nevada’s ground-water supplies to cloud-seeding in the Rocky Mountains. Additionally, we need to continue to build upon our successful water conservation efforts and encourage our neighbors on the Colorado River to do the same. Without immediate action, our community’s prosperity and the American dream it represents could wither and die.
There are difficult decisions to be made, the in-state ground-water project chief among them. From the environmental consequences to the financial cost, misconceptions abound and passions run strong. Our community needs to put aside the rhetoric and come together for a reasoned, informed discussion of the issues so that the public has an opportunity to meaningfully participate. There is little chance everyone will be happy with the outcome, but it is a debate that needs to occur.
Working together, we can find a solution that protects our families, jobs and quality of life. No reasonable person would deny that our water supply is in jeopardy or suggest that we should stand idly by and hope for a change of fortune. The questions are, what are our options, and in what order should they be pursued?
We have to be certain that every option available to us is ready to be implemented if and when conditions mandate, so we must continue to pursue all options. Our very existence depends upon our readiness.