Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Nevada has long taken conservation measures for success in drought contingency plan

Colorado River

Ross D. Franklin / AP

In this May 31, 2018, file photo, the low level of the water line is shown on the banks of the Colorado River in Hoover Dam, Ariz.

Southern Nevadans will see few noticeable consequences from a soon-to-be-finalized drought plan for states that get most of their water supply from the Colorado River, according to a Southern Nevada water resources expert.

States are nearing a federal deadline for the drought contingency plans, dealing with lower reservoir levels and a higher probability that Lake Mead will experience a shortage by 2020. Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to finalize their drought plan by Jan. 31.

Nevada has its elements of the established plan, said Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources at the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“The two biggest keys to the drought contingency plan are that we need to put more water in the lake in order to protect Lake Mead’s elevation, and prevent further declines to critical reservoir elevations,” she said. “And in doing so, we need to create flexibility in how people have access to and use water that they have stored in Lake Mead, so we don’t de-incentivize using Lake Mead as a place to store water, and have the benefit of keeping its elevation up.”

Pellegrino said contributing states have to conserve water above and beyond current operating agreements to allow the drought contingency plan to work. Nevada already uses less than its allocation in these agreements, and has been for more than a decade, she said. The plan also allows for storing water in Lake Mead for future use at a low cost to residents, she said.

“We look at doubling the amount of water that goes into Lake Mead in order to help prevent its decline,” Pellegrino said.

The water authority is the wholesale water provider managing the regional water system, including intakes at Lake Mead, two treatment plants and the pipelines that bring the water to be delivered to the Las Vegas Valley Water District, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City, which distribute to customers.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District is the managing agency for the water authority, sharing resources as two distinct agencies with the Clark County Commission as the board of directors. The water authority was formed to bring coordination among the different entities in Southern Nevada and establish a uniform voice to federal authorities during water negotiations.

“The whole reason SNWA came together and was formed was because North Las Vegas, Henderson and the Las Vegas Valley Water District, we were all vying for the remaining, unallocated water on the Colorado River,” said Bronson L. Mack, a spokesman for the water district and water authority.

The authority brings a uniform conservation program to the region, Mack said. Mandatory regional watering restrictions are part of that plan, and a prohibition on daytime outdoor watering has been in place since the 1950s.

Colorado River Basin states are in a 19-year drought. The Bureau of Reclamation in August boosted its prediction of a 52 percent chance of a Lake Mead shortage by 2020 to a 57 percent chance.

The bureau says the combined capacity of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is lower than it’s ever been during the drought, a little less than half full. Powell and Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River, Pellegrino said.

Pellegrino said the Colorado River is “the lifeblood of the Southwest,” responsible for an economic output of over $1 trillion and 16 million jobs relying directly or indirectly on the river.

“The basin is fortunate that the reservoirs were full in 2000, and we’ve relied upon that reservoir storage for all of these years, stretching that supply so that reductions haven’t been felt in the Lower Basin yet,” Pellegrino said. “And there is over a 50 percent chance that we will see the first federally declared shortage on the river next year.”

Southern Nevada has prepared for such a shortage, Pellegrino said, adding that every jurisdiction to which the authority provides water has water waste fees in place. Most of the agency’s conservation programming was put in place in 2003, Mack said.

“People who are not following the guidelines for when you should be watering, time of day, day of week, having water running off into the street in the gutter — there are many different components, but those are already in place across all of Southern Nevada,” Pellegrino said. “These are long-standing.”

Southern Nevada has been preparing for decades for these kinds of droughts, Pellegrino said.

“We are the only Colorado River water user that’s been consistently using less than our allocation for over a decade,” she said. “Arizona and California cannot boast that. Essentially, we’ve taken a very serious approach to conservation in order, 1) to make it easier for us to implement things like this, but 2) to lessen the impacts when something like this is implemented.”

While users may not notice a difference once the drought contingency plan is finalized, Pellegrino said, it’s still vital for residents to prioritize conservation.

“Our organization is also trying to refocus the community on … the importance of water conservation,” she said. “That’s not directly related to (the drought contingency plan); we’re doing that regardless, and we’re trying to get the community to come back together and fire up that conservation ethic that we’ve built really strong here, and keep it going into the future.

Preventing water waste, using the watering schedule, and knowing grass doesn’t need to be watered more than one day a week, especially in fall and wintertime, are all important for residents.

"Compliance with that (watering) schedule is very important for us saving water,” Pellegrino said. “(It’s) just a recognition that we live in the desert and this is how we need to act.”

The agency increased its turf removal rebate in May as part of its conservation efforts.

In addition to the drought contingency plan, Pellegrino said, infrastructure has been put in place to continue pulling the authority’s water from the lake even after Hoover Dam can no longer release water to Arizona and other downstream users.

“We’ve spent a lot of time preparing, but all indications of drought and climate change are that this region will continue to be warmer and drier into the future,” she said. “Does that mean that we won’t see good years on the Colorado River? No, we certainly will see good years on the Colorado River, but it’s (incumbent) upon every water user in the basin to do what they can to save water and use less water as we head into a warmer and drier future.”