Las Vegas Sun

August 10, 2022

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Guest column:

Diversity, balance needed for Nevada’s future

Our community has reached a critical crossroads. From an economic standpoint, it would appear that Southern Nevada is slowly beginning to recover. However, job-creating investment has been slow to materialize. As we have learned over the years through numerous interactions with the financial and investment communities, Southern Nevada’s economic recovery is inextricably linked to the certainty of a reliable water supply.

As the agency tasked with ensuring that safe, reliable water supply, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has worked diligently to anticipate future water needs and identify supplies that can meet those needs half a century into the future.

Little more than 10 years ago, our water supply seemed assured. Lake Mead was brimming and we had solid agreements with neighboring states that would meet our needs for decades. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. The drought quickly depleted this critical reservoir, which supplies water to three states and Mexico. Despite strong snowmelt this year, Lake Mead remains about 4 trillion gallons below 2000 levels. Excessive dependence on the Colorado River — which currently represents 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply — is perilous for our community. To reduce our exposure to drought and create a more balanced water resource portfolio — just as a prudent investor would — the SNWA activated long-held groundwater applications in east-central Nevada.

A bird rests in Las Vegas Bay on Lake Mead at sunset Friday afternoon, April 21, 2006.

A bird rests in Las Vegas Bay on Lake Mead at sunset Friday afternoon, April 21, 2006.

The Nevada state engineer, who controls our state’s water supplies, is considering the SNWA’s water-rights applications. Often mischaracterized by activists as a “water grab,” these applications are nothing of the sort. Nevada water law is based on two underlying principles: Each groundwater basin has an annual budget based on natural recharge, and water rights are granted by the state on a seniority basis after thorough study and deliberation.

Water permits are limited to the annual recharge of the basin to avoid draining the aquifer. Water rights are then issued on a first-come, first-serve basis; this is important because it ensures that existing water-rights holders are protected. Even after water rights are granted, the resulting permit is not a blank check. While the permitee is allowed to use the water, ultimate control of that resource remains with the state forever. Neither a community nor any person in Nevada can simply “grab” water.

Opponents to the authority’s applications have made, and will likely continue to make, speculative claims about large-scale vegetation loss and dust storms, while the science actually indicates that the many plants in that region don’t access groundwater now, soundly refuting the depiction of barren desert. However, the real issue that activists refuse to acknowledge is the existence of state and federal environmental laws explicitly created to protect our state’s and nation’s natural resources. Beyond that, the SNWA has voluntarily entered into agreements with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and other agencies with stewardship responsibilities that allow them to directly participate in managing this water supply.

Ultimately, the stated concern of project opponents is that neither our state’s stringent water law nor environmental laws will be enforced, nor will these legally binding agreements be honored. If indeed that is their true concern, there can be no assurance that will assuage their fears. We are either a nation of laws, or we are not. I believe in the force of law, and one need look no further than California — which saw one of its major water supplies curtailed by 90 percent because of environmental concerns about a two-inch fish — to see a demonstration of that force.

The deliberations today are not about building this project immediately. They are about preserving the right to construct this project when Southern Nevada’s survival depends on having these waters available. But yes, water security for Nevada does carry a cost.

However, it is important to note that, even under a worst-case scenario that involves no economic growth during the next four decades and no additional means of offsetting the impact of project-related expenditures, future water rates in Southern Nevada will continue to be comparable to those in other Western cities.

People frequently complain that government fails to plan. The SNWA’s efforts to date have all focused on preparing for an uncertain future. The drought events on the Colorado River stand as a stark warning that we cannot rely on it as our only water supply.

No one wants or plans to build this project today. What is at issue is this community’s right to consider building it when our very survival hangs in the balance. We will not be given a second chance.

Pat Mulroy is the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

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