John Locher / AP
Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 | 2 a.m.
For years, Southern Nevadans have watched the water level in Lake Mead inch downward and wondered how long we could avoid the federally mandated rationing that kicks in when the lake elevation hits certain thresholds.
Now comes a forecast bearing worrisome news. For the second time since 2019, we may be in for a reduction.
A study issued last month by the Bureau of Reclamation says the lake level could dip below 1,075 feet by the end of the year. If that prediction plays out, Nevada’s allocation from the lake will be reduced by 13,000 acre-feet of water, or a little over 4%, from its current 300,000 acre-feet. That reduction would come on top of an 8,000 acre-foot reduction from 2019 when the lake level dipped below 1,090 feet.
(Math time: An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, which equates to approximately 326,000 gallons. Based on per-capita water use in Las Vegas, each acre-foot is enough to provide a year’s worth of water to one family of four and one family of three per year.)
That 4% reduction wouldn’t be devastating, for reasons we’ll get into later, but it should be a cause for concern given that there’s no end in sight to the drought and that further fall-offs in the lake level will prompt more cutbacks in Southern Nevada’s allotment.
With that in mind, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) recently issued a reminder to residents about the importance of household water conservation measures we can all take to reduce the pressure on Lake Mead.
• Comply with the SNWA’s mandatory restrictions on lawn and landscaping irrigation. Currently, outdoor watering is limited to one day per week, which will change to three days a week beginning in March and six days per week in May. Watering schedules vary by location in the valley — to find yours, visit lvvwd.com/conservation/mandatory-watering-schedule/index.html.
On days when irrigating is allowed, the SNWA advises watering in three four-minute periods spaced an hour apart. From May through October, watering before sunrise is recommended.
• Replace grass with drought-resistant plants and xeriscaping. The SNWA offers an incentive of $3 per square foot to swap out up to 10,000 square feet of turf, and $1.50 per square foot beyond that. To apply, call 702-258-7283 or visit snwa.com/apps/watersmart-landscape-application/index.cfml
• Position sprinklers so they’re not spraying on sidewalks, streets or other areas without vegetation.
• Look for signs of leaks. One method is to monitor your water bill. If you see spikes in usage, call a leak detection company.
• Visit snwa.com for information on rebate incentives for smart irrigation controllers and leak detectors, and coupons redeemable at car washes that recycle water.
Conservation methods like these can make a huge difference in stretching the region’s water supply, as Las Vegas residents have already proven. According to the SNWA, the valley’s water usage plunged by 27 billion gallons between 2002 and 2018, despite a population increase of 690,000 residents over that time. Today, on a per-capita basis, Las Vegas residents are using 38% less water than they were in the early 2000s. Conservation drove that reduction.
How important were those water savings? They’ve put us in position to absorb this year’s potential cutback and also allowed us to contend with the 2019 reduction.
We’re currently using about 250,000 acre-feet per year, thanks to our conservation efforts. So even if our allocation dips this year, our usage will still be below our current cap.
For that, here’s a hearty pat on the back to the SNWA, which is a model for desert regions in effective conservation efforts and community engagement. We also applaud the resort industry for its extraordinarily successful efforts at reducing water use through such means as high-efficiency bathroom fixtures and recycling water for pools and fountains.
We should be proud of our conservation job, but the fact that the cap keeps dropping means sooner or later, Las Vegas’ growth in terms of people and industries will be strangled by a lack of water. So we need to keep on improving.
Plus, even a cursory look at the effects of the drought and climate change shows that it’s in our best interest to double down on saving our water supply.
Sixteen of the past 20 years have ended with below-average snowfall in the Rockies, which, combined with dry soil conditions throughout the Southwest, have greatly reduced runoff into the Colorado River and left it drastically overtaxed.
The Bureau of Reclamation says 2021 is shaping up to be yet another year of sub-mediocre snowpack and dry soil, which soaks up the snowmelt before it can reach the river. The forecast calls for runoff to be 54% of the average.
Meanwhile, climate change is pushing the drought to disturbing new levels. Witness the record 240-day stretch without measurable rainfall last year in Las Vegas, which included the hottest August on record in the valley.
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to hope the bathtub ring at Lake Mead will start narrowing anytime soon. But by pitching in and saving water where we can, we can make our allotment go as far as possible.