Water, Water … Nowhere

Officials look for more money to keep quenching Southern Nevada’s insatiable thirst. Maybe it’s time to admit we have a drinking problem.

Photo by L. Powell

Photo by L. Powell

The diagnosis is discouraging; the treatment options dwindling: We’re running out of water fast, and Pat Mulroy is running out of ways to tap and distribute what water remains.

It’s been a season of bad news for the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose singularly difficult mission is to keep this Valley from drying up. On August 16, the Bureau of Reclamation reported that it would be releasing the lowest amount of water—7.5 million acre-feet—from Lake Powell to Lake Mead since the former was filled in the 1960s. Lake Powell is simply too low to spare any more, says Upper Colorado regional director Larry Walkoviak, because of a 14-year drought that’s the worst the region has seen in the last 100 years.

A week earlier, Mulroy had said that a reduction of water from Lake Powell would exacerbate Lake Mead’s decline and put SNWA facilities in jeopardy. All the same, she didn’t object to the reduction: Taking more out of Lake Powell, she noted, would mean less of an emergency fund for Lake Mead in the future, should rainfall and snowmelt continue failing to replenish the Colorado River.

Now the region might need federal assistance, Mulroy says. At last month’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, she characterized the drought as a slow-moving disaster on the scale of a major hurricane, requiring similar government aid for prevention and cleanup. The SNWA, she says, has spent enormous sums to keep Southern Nevada watered, but at some point a regional crisis becomes a national concern.

SNWA’s solutions have been often innovative and sometimes divisive. And they have also been costly: The third intake at Lake Mead, a massive project to keep the water flowing if it dips below the higher intakes, has an $800 million price tag. But water is declining so quickly that it may be below the first intake before the third one is even completed, leaving the Valley limping along on one straw.

As for the controversial pipeline project that would bring water to Southern Nevada from the northeastern part of the state, it’s hard to estimate cost. The water authority has put it at around $3 billion. But in May alone, the Bureau of Land Management billed SNWA more than $575,000 in processing fees and $32,000 for six months’ right-of-way rental in White Pine County. Extrapolate such costs, which could rise, over decades, and you can see why some critics believe the cost is likely to be more than $15 billion.

Mulroy says the pipeline project would be built only as a last resort. Right now she’s got more immediate concerns: namely, the September 4 meeting of the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee. On the agenda is a potential rate increase to help offset the rising cost of keeping our toilets flushing and parks green. At press time, the committee hadn’t released a hard number, but it’s enough to know the possibility looms. Rate increases are unpopular among everyone but conservationists—adding pressure on Mulroy to find other solutions.

“There comes a point,” she says, “where there is a federal responsibility in all this.” After all, the feds are deeply involved in other elements of regional infrastructure: from Hoover Dam electricity to Colorado River water rights for Indian tribes.

Mulroy doesn’t say what form federal assistance should take, or how it would be used. Some insiders suppose it would go to California farmers in exchange for their promise to leave heavily watered fields fallow. The water saved could then be “banked” in Lake Mead for dry days.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing is for sure: The deficit between the water we use and the water we have is growing, and there are few viable means for acquiring more. Put the problem in such terms, and the solution seems obvious, if not easy: We have to use less.


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