“There’s no telling what we’ll find in Lake Mead,” former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman told the Associated Press earlier this month. Goodman, the storied mob attorney turned mayor, was talking about the bodies discovered at Lake Mead as water levels have declined.
But Lake Mead’s historic decline has revealed more uncomfortable realities than just this one. If the lake was already a symbol for the West’s water issues, now it is even more stark.
And suddenly, a lot of people are talking about water.
This week’s column looks at common questions readers have about water and provides context about where our water comes from in Nevada — and the solutions moving forward.
1. What about our neighbors to the West? Is California using all our water? Are we selling our water to California? Not exactly. With the exception of the Humboldt River, most of the surface water in Nevada — that is, the water that flows down rivers and streams — originates as snow elsewhere. In the case of Western Nevada, much of the water that irrigates farms in Yerington or supplies drinking water to Reno, actually originates in California. The Walker River and the Truckee River, respectively, run off the mountains on the other side of the state line. In the case of Las Vegas, which gets its water from the Colorado River, the story is well known: Tributaries snake their way across the Southwest, but most of the precipitation that makes the river run falls in the Rockies. Water use on these rivers was divided up, often overallocated, a long time ago.
In the case of the Colorado River, the water flowing downstream is not being sold to California or given away. California has the largest share of Colorado River water and some of the highest priority rights to use it (water rights generally function on a “first in time, first in right” basis). Can California take actions to better manage water in a way that benefits Nevada? Certainly. And in fact, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is one of several water districts working with Southern California cities on a recycling project that could free up more water in Lake Mead.
2. The context is written in history and rights: When I interview water managers, they are always quick to point out that every watershed — the Walker, the Carson, the Humboldt, the Truckee, the Owyhee, the Amargosa, the Colorado — is different and people should be wary about drawing comparisons. There is some truth to this. Different rules govern the way water is used and allocated across these river systems. That said, there is one similarity that stands out: Most of these watersheds are governed by a series of rights, agreements, laws and rules — in some cases, court decrees — that distribute power and authority across many different jurisdictions and layers of governance. There is rarely one decision-maker on any given river, and that means solutions to water problems do not often come with the wave of a magic wand. They take hard work, discussion and collaboration. They are revealed over time.
History and time play a critical role, one that they do not play when discussing other natural resources. “First in time, first in right.” Water users with a legal priority to use water during scarcity are often those with the oldest water rights — those who claimed water rights first in time. As a result, the most “senior” rights (the term water managers use) often (though not always) belong to Native American tribes and agricultural communities in a watershed.
3. Our climate is changing our water cycle: “The worst I’ve seen. The worst I’ve seen.” This refrain has been repeated to me, over and over, the past two years when I’ve been out reporting on water. The changing climate is making drought more pronounced and extreme. Those who spend a lot of time on the landscape, who have lived through variations, can see the impacts up close. Scientists, too, have documented the way climate change has affected streamflow, particularly in the Colorado River, which supplies water to much of the Southwest. But it’s not only precipitation and supply that is changing. There is a whole system of variables.
Prolonged drought is drying out soils, soaking up water and making runoff — the process by which snow runs off into rivers — less efficient. Consider wildfire. More intense wildfires have large-scale impacts on watersheds and the headwaters of many river systems. And increased temperature has contributed to a thirstier atmosphere, as climate researchers recently showed.
4. Augmentation is on the table. But it is not a fast or cheap solution: Water projects seem to capture the imagination. If I had a nickel for every time someone has suggested to me that all the West needs to do is build a pipeline from the Mississippi River… and it actually has been studied. Arizona is taking augmentation seriously. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed a $1 billion allocation to seek new water supplies over the next three years. That number tells you a lot about what you need to know. Finding new water is not cheap and not a short-term plan.
In Nevada, the augmentation discussion has mostly centered around the Colorado River. And although the most imaginative projects seem to involve piping water from here to there, a lot of the augmentation projects that are currently being pursued focus on reducing demand to free up water for someone else. That is the concept behind desalinization or Southern California’s recycling project, which Nevada has invested in and could free up Colorado River water.
Still, there’s a reason that water managers are talking about conservation — even paying their customers to replace irrigated landscape. Reducing water demand can stretch a supply in a cost-effective way, especially in an urban context. And it can be done on a much faster scale.
5. We have lived with scarcity for a long-time: Nevada is the driest state in the nation. It is the driest state in a region that is shaped by its aridity. Nevada has lived with scarcity and very little water. What that means is that water managers here have thought about these issues for a long time. Las Vegas, due in part to scarcity and a meager Colorado River allocation, has already implemented indoor recycling of water and aggressive conservation incentives. It is not perfect and there are arguments to be made about growth, but it is seen as an example in the West. The same is true in other parts of Nevada. Compared to other states, groundwater use in Nevada is far more regulated. Scarcity has long forced tough conversations about water use — and in many places, they are not getting easier. There are difficult choices, and many will not result in the types of win-wins that politicians like to tout. But aridity here is not new. And if recognizing the reality is the first step, Nevada is a step ahead of many other states.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
• On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision that found the bi-state sage grouse, a subpopulation of the Greater sage grouse, did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, Courthouse News Services’ Carson McCullough reported.
• Local, state and federal officials implement fire restrictions in Clark County, KSNV reports.
The National Science Foundation awarded the Nevada System of Higher Education a $20 million grant, over five years, to study wildfire. The research will involve the Desert Research Institute, UNLV and UNR. According to a press release, “the overarching goal of the project is to increase the capacity of Nevada for wildland fire research, education and workforce development, and to demonstrate this increased capacity through technology-enhanced fire science in the regionally important sagebrush ecosystem.”
The Reno Gazette Journal’s Amy Alonozo on what we people can do to prevent fires.
• The White House released an interesting readout of a stakeholder meeting focused on reform of the General Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining companies to operate on public land without paying royalties and has been criticized as outdated. Top executives from Barrick and Newmont were at the meeting. Members of Earthworks, an environmental group, also attended.