Friday, Feb. 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Southern Nevada residents used 5.2 billion fewer gallons of water in 2008 than in 2007, the biggest year-to-year drop since 2003, when a drought plan and higher water rates went into effect.
With Clark County in the grip of a drought that has lowered the surface of Lake Mead 100 feet since 2000, the drop in water use is a bit of good news as Southern Nevada continues to weather its worst economy since the Great Depression.
Officials say there is little doubt the economic crisis contributed to the water savings, but there has yet to be a detailed analysis of exactly how and to what degree.
The decrease in water usage also is a blessing and a curse for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Sure, the agency has been pushing water conservation for years, but this drop is so large it could cause problems. The water agency’s revenue is way down, a condition that is stirring up second thoughts and questions about the agency’s plans and projections.
Clark County’s economic problems are multifaceted. In 2008 housing starts in Clark County fell 40 percent and 67,223 properties went through foreclosure, a 121 percent increase from 2007.
The county also is estimated to have lost 10,000 people, but that population drop would account for only a drop in the bucket of last year’s change in water use. At an average of 2.5 people per household, 10,000 people equal 4,000 households. On average a Southern Nevada household uses 144,000 gallons of water per year, according to the water authority, so those 4,000 households would be expected to use up only about 576 million gallons.
Our slew of foreclosed homes, noted J.C. Davis, the water authority’s spokesman, would not necessarily result in a massive drop in water consumption either. Water for showers, cooking, flushing and other interior uses isn’t the issue because “we recapture and recover virtually every indoor drop of water in the valley,” he said. “It hits a drain, we get it.”
The lion’s share of residential water use is on lawns. And while one might figure that banks and others who want to resell foreclosed homes would keep watering the lawns of those properties, homeowners associations have complained that in too many cases lawns and landscaping have been allowed to die.
The water savings piqued the interest of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, which met at the Clark County Government Center this week. Commission members were told the water authority was looking for an answer, but Davis said the water authority isn’t sure there is a single cause. He rattled off a list of factors: A rate increase took effect in March; 20 million square feet of turf was converted to water-stingy desert landscape; foreclosures jumped; tourism fell.
“In short, the answer as to contributing factors is E: all of the above,” Davis said.
The low-use finding coincided with a dire show-and-tell Wednesday in Carson City, where Pat Mulroy, water authority general manager, laid out in a PowerPoint presentation the dramatic decline her agency has seen in revenue in the past two years. In 2006 the agency took in $188.45 million in connection fees, which cost about $6,000 per household. That fell to $121.36 million in 2007 and $61 million in 2008 with another decline forecast for this year.
Mulroy was trying to make the point that the Legislature should not look to the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s revenue, or its reserve of $480 million, to help fix the state’s fiscal woes. The reserve is needed to maintain the agency’s good bond rating, which helps it obtain money needed for major capital projects.
One of those projects is a third “straw” into Lake Mead to ensure a supply of water in case the lake drops below one of its two existing intake pipes. Davis said a vertical shaft for the straw is under construction. The project is expected to cost $837 million.
For longer-term water needs, the agency wants to build a pipeline to counties to the north, using it to import water to Clark County. The water authority estimates the pipeline will cost $3.5 billion. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, or PLAN, which opposes the pipeline, says the estimate is outdated and the real cost will be more than $10 billion.
At least one Clark County commissioner, Chris Giunchigliani, said the 5.2 billion-gallon drop in the water use last year makes her wonder whether PLAN and other opponents of the pipeline are right, that “we need to take another look at that pipeline and whether we want to spend all that money, especially considering the economic times we’re in.” Most of the water authority’s money for construction comes from a quarter-cent sales tax, connection charges, commodities surcharges and proceeds from the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. So if the pipeline were not built, Davis counters, it would not suddenly free up billions for other uses.
And the need for the pipeline is indisputable, in the water authority’s eyes, Davis added. He pointed to a Scripps Institution of Oceanography report in February 2008 that gave Lake Mead a 50 percent chance of drying up by 2021 if the drought continues and water use s not curtailed.
“That’s the whole point,” Davis said. “If Lake Mead craters, we lose 90 percent of our water supply and we can’t survive on the 10 percent we get from local ground water. We have to have another supply that isn’t the Colorado River.”