Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2022

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Will others follow SNWA’s lead on conservation?

Water conservation isn’t cheap. But it’s not as pricey as 300-mile pipelines and water grabs.

Last week, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s board passed its 2020 Water Resource Plan — a blueprint detailing the water purveyor’s estimates for supply and demand in a world with a declining Colorado River, spiking temperatures and increasing populations.

The SNWA also approved a rate increase that will likely result in about a $10 hike in residential water bills by 2026 in order to pay for current and future projects.

Southern Nevadans will be contributing more for conservation efforts like turf removal and infrastructure projects that will allow the region to augment its water supply. These investments are essential for the future of the community. Southern Nevadans live in a desert in the nation’s driest state. Delivering water and protecting the water supply is not cheap. Compared with past proposals by the SNWA, however, the new strategy costs less and recognizes the challenges that await us.

Just as important as what’s written in the plans are what’s missing. The planning documents don’t include the Las Vegas Pipeline, which would have drained aquifers in rural parts of the state and cost ratepayers more than $15.5 billion. The SNWA’s decisions emphasize that the Colorado River can continue to supply the region for at least the next 50 years. That won’t be simple. But it is the cheaper option.

The community must take note of this momentous lift. Individually, residents and businesses must continue ripping out turf, following water schedules and thinking about their use. Institutionally, though, other government entities must take a hard look at the work the SNWA has done.

The SNWA cannot preserve Southern Nevada’s water supply by itself. Think about the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. Now is the time to consider the facts about Southern Nevada’s future water supply when planning for things like residential development.

Twenty years ago, Lake Mead’s levels were more than 100 feet higher. As drought, climate change and 1 million new people moved to Las Vegas, things have changed. We can’t do business as usual. Somewhat conservative estimates highlight that the Colorado River’s flows are expected to decrease 35-50% in the next 100 years. We don’t want to find out what the tipping point is between having enough water and not having enough.

The water problem won’t be unique to the region. Southern Nevada won’t be able to source water from other parts of the West because there will be less of it in those places too.

As we consider the harsh realities, we must also think that by 2070, there could be 1 million to 2 million more people in Southern Nevada. Just as water managers have debated and studied how the region will meet future water demands, elected officials at all levels of government must consider how many people can feasibly live in Nevada’s share of the Mojave Desert.

For the past three years, myriad constituencies have debated a proposal known as the Clark County Lands Bill — federal legislation that will determine the future of Southern Nevada’s real estate development. The Nevada Congressional Delegation, Clark County officials, business interests, environmentalists, social justice advocates and others have been at loggerheads over the details of the legislation. Past lands bills were the driving factor of the urban growth during the past two decades in Southern Nevada. Now it’s time we ask: Can we continue to grow like it’s the year 2000?

Continuing to sell off public lands for thousands of new homes and shopping plazas in the desert will ultimately make the decisions of future leaders a lot harder.

If Lake Mead continues to drop as forecasted, the challenge of meeting the demands of millions of new residents in Southern Nevada will be difficult.

I write this because SNWA’s recent actions are admirable and responsible. No Colorado River utility is doing what SNWA is to protect the river. It is planning for climate change, doubling down on conservation practices and investing in infrastructure to secure a water supply.

Every decision about future growth should consider how to defend the utility’s work.

But if all the other entities in the region don’t think beyond the present moment, I fear that rural and urban Nevada will be back at loggerheads fighting a provincial war over another pipeline.

Now more than ever, local officials must slow down plans for developing more acres of the desert and think about what may happen 50, 75 and 100 years from now. We can’t afford to ignore the future.

SNWA no longer operates like it’s the year 2000. Other government agencies, businesses and residents in the region shouldn’t, either.

Kyle Roerink is executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting water resources in the nation’s driest places. He is a former Sun staff reporter.