Jim Wilson / The New York Times
Friday, July 25, 2014 | 5:08 p.m.
Following a cascade of increasingly bleak news about the health of the Colorado River, one of the nation’s most vital waterways, a collection of southwestern cities including Las Vegas celebrated Colorado River Day Friday.
Thursday, NASA and University of California, Irvine, released a new study showing groundwater levels are falling at an alarming rate in the Colorado River Basin. More than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken basin since late 2004 came from underground resources.
“We don't know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don't know when we're going to run out," Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at UC-Irvine, and the study's lead author, said in a statement. "This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking."
It was against this backdrop that community leaders and conservationists came together today to celebrate Colorado River Day, honoring the work that has been done to preserve water resources while looking forward to the tough task ahead. There were celebrations in Denver, Flagstaff, Ariz., and Silver City, N.M.
This is the third year of the event, organized by Nuestro Rio, National Young Farmers Coalition, Save the Colorado and Protect the Flows. The Las Vegas event, held at City Hall, was attended by members of Nuestro Rio, the Latin Chamber of Commerce, Hispanics in Politics, Southern Nevada Water Authority, National Park Service and representatives from each of the state’s congressional delegates.
“If we don't have water here in our city, we don’t have a city,” state Sen. Ruben Kihuen said. “We are facing a lot of challenges with the Colorado River. The bottom line is we need to conserve water, and there are solutions. Some of those solutions include improving urban conservation, improving agricultural efficiency and establishing water banks.”
The region has been in a drought since 2000, and the last two years were the driest consecutive years in the last century. Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was first filled upon completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935.
The Colorado River runs through seven states and into Mexico, providing water to 40 million Americans and 15 percent of the crops in the United States.
Currently, wastewater in Southern Nevada is treated in a three-step process and then is directly used for golf courses, industrial needs and irrigation. Excess treated water is sent back into Lake Mead via the Las Vegas Wash.
Bob Coffin, Las Vegas city councilman and member of the SNWA board of directors, said Las Vegas has led the way with innovative conservation efforts, but more will be needed moving forward.
“We are very close to the point where we are going to have to figure out how to do a fourth treatment (step) so that we can drink the water … and it’s going to cost a lot of money,” Coffin said, referring to direct reuse of treated wastewater as drinking water, rather than having it filtered through a large body of water as it is now.
Marco Rueda, assistant director of Nuestro Rio, presented a Conservation Innovation Award to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which he called “an example for other water authorities across the Southwest.”
Zane Marshall, SNWA director of environmental and water resources, accepted the award and said that the current conservation plan means the valley is ready for the next three levels of water shortage, when the lake drops to 1,075 feet, 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet above sea level -– it is currently sitting around 1,080 feet. When the lake hits those reduced levels certain conservation measures are triggered, including reductions in the allotment of water per state and provisions on which supplemental groundwater and surface water sources can be accessed.
“But we have to look to the future and decrease our dependency on the Colorado River, and increase our resilience as a community so we can meet the needs of future generations,” he said.