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Indy DC Download: Southern Nevada Water Authority conservation efforts highlighted as model for drought response

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
CongressGovernment
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Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger spotlighted at a Senate hearing conservation programs the agency has implemented to reduce water usage that could help other western states in the face of historic drought.

“I think conservation is key here and it plays a great role in the story of what we have done in Nevada,” Cortez Masto said. 

Her comments came at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday on solutions to the drought raging in the western U.S.

Entsminger said Nevada has shown that conservation can help preserve the remaining water.  

“The solution to this problem — and by solution, I don't mean refilling the reservoirs but rather avoiding potentially catastrophic conditions — is a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable,” Entsminger said. “Nevada's efforts are a case in point.”

Despite a population increase of 800,000 people over the last two decades, the region’s water consumption last year remained 26 percent less than what it was at the turn of the century, he said, an achievement attributed to “paying customers to replace grass with drip-irrigated plants, setting mandatory irrigation schedules and strictly enforcing waste water” regulations.

SNWA started its conservation efforts in 2002, still the driest year in the recorded history of the Colorado River, the water source for the southern part of Nevada, when only 25 percent of normal inflows came in. That's when the agency launched its Water Smart landscape program, which pays businesses $3 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with drip-irrigated plants and trees, up to 10,000 square feet a year, and $1.50 per square foot after that.

“We've now taken out enough turf in the Las Vegas Valley to lay an 18-inch wide piece of sod all the way around the circumference of the globe,” Entsminger said. 

SNWA also has a tiered rate structure so that those who use more water pay more for it and the funds go to conservation programs. 

Almost 93 percent of the West is experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions, and more than 70 percent of the western U.S. is experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton noted at the hearing citing the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought has taken a toll on the Colorado River, which provides water to Southern Nevada  — SNWA serves about 2.2 million Nevada residents — along with six other states and Mexico. The river flows into Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border. The lake is the nation’s largest reservoir, but it has sunk to its lowest level since the 1930s and is only about 28 percent full. 

Touton said the drought would require states to cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water usage next year. The Bureau of Reclamation has called on the seven states, which divide up a total of about 15 million acre-feet, to come to an agreement on apportioning the cuts by August, when the bureau will release its projections used to set annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

But Entsminger said Nevada is well-positioned to absorb those cuts, given the state's conservation programs. The governor signed into law last year legislation to replace ornamental turf. 

In 2021, Southern Nevada consumed 242,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water and SNWA expects to use about that much in 2022, according to SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack. The figure is below the state's annual 300,000 acre-feet allocation and less than the 279,000 acre-feet allotted to the state following drought-spurred cuts implemented at the beginning of the year.

SNWA also updates its 50-year assessment of water needs on an annual basis. The authority projects that the population of Southern Nevada will grow from its current 2.5 million residents to 3.8 million in 2076. The state uses about 112 gallons per person per day and projects that it will need to reduce that to 86 gallons by 2036 to accommodate the growth. 

Evapotranspiration bill

But Entsminger added that conservation alone will not be enough. Nevada's water allocation is the smallest among the seven states, about 1.8 percent. Agriculture is the biggest user and the industry must play its part, Entsminger said.

About 80 percent of Colorado River water goes to agriculture and 80 percent of that goes to forage crops like alfalfa.

“I’m not suggesting that farmers stop farming, but rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency,” Entsminger said.

“The burden of shortage cannot be borne by any single community or sector,”  he continued. “Rather, I urge every Colorado River user to follow our lead and do all they can to preserve what remains of the Southwest’s lifeblood. Our collective future depends upon it.”  

One tool that Entsminger supports is the use of data. He called for the passage of legislation introduced by Cortez Masto that would establish a program in the U.S. Geological Survey that uses publicly available data from satellites and weather stations to provide estimates of evapotranspiration (ET). 

ET is a measurement of water transferred from the land to the atmosphere, often representing the largest share of water consumption in arid environments. Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) has introduced a House version of the measure, the Open Access Evapotranspiration Data Act, referred to as the OpenET bill. 

“Working for a water utility, we're firm believers that you can't manage what you can't measure and the OpenET bill will give us the tools to measure where exactly the water is being consumed,” Entsminger said. 

At the hearing, Maurice Hall of the Environmental Defense Fund said that while the ET data has been available, the bill would make it more accessible to water-decision makers, from ranchers to state officials.

“It puts that data into the hands of everyone so that we can begin looking at the same data, diminish the arguments about whether that method is a little bit better, or this method is a little bit better, and converge on a piece of information that we can all use and understand how it's affecting the water decisions,” Hall said.

Senate approves burn pit measure

The Senate approved legislation to provide medical care for about 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits, used mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan to get rid of trash and waste.

This bill was approved 84 to 14. Both Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) backed the measure, which will cost about $280 billion over 10 years. 

The House, which approved a burn pit bill in March, is expected to take up the Senate legislation as soon as next week.

Nevada is home to more than 200,000 veterans, most of whom fought in the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East.

The bill would provide so-called presumptive status for 23 toxic exposure-related conditions to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) list of service-connected presumptions.

The presumptive status allows veterans applying for disability benefits to forgo certain paperwork and medical exams to prove their injuries and illnesses spurred from their time in the military.

The bill also expands presumptive status to hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MUGS) associated with Agent Orange exposure. MUGS can lead to some forms of blood cancer. Agent Orange is an herbicide defoliant used during the Vietnam War. The bill also expands eligible exposure to Agent Orange to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll.

House passes inflation response bill

The House approved legislation intended to lower the cost of food and gas. The measure was approved 221 to 204, with only seven Republicans voting in favor of the bill. It is unlikely to win enough GOP support to pass the Senate.

All of Nevada’s Democratic House members voted for the bill. Approval of the bill comes as inflation rose 8.6 percent between May 2021 and May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest increase since 1981.

The measure packaged together a series of bills, including legislation to provide $500 million to farmers for rural broadband and precision agriculture and technology to help use fertilizers more efficiently.

Another provision is designed to increase competition among meat packers by setting up a loan program for new and expanding meat processors and providing grants to increase jobs or buy new equipment.

The package would also alleviate high gas prices by allowing the sale of ethanol, a liquid fuel made from corn, to be solid year-round. The Environmental Protection Agency bans the sale of ethanol in the summer because of smog concerns. But President Joe Biden lifted the ban on summer ethanol sales in April. The bill would repeal the ban permanently.  

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

SEN. JACKY ROSEN

Legislation co-sponsored:

S.4389 – Commission of Inquiry (COI) Elimination Act to make it U.S. policy to seek the abolition of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) targeted and biased investigation against Israel, and would withhold funding in order to eliminate the COI. 

REP. DINA TITUS

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 8118 – To prohibit the purchase, ownership, or possession of enhanced body armor by civilians, with exceptions.

H.R. 8105 – To require small, medium, and large hub airports to certify that airport service workers are paid the prevailing wage and provided fringe benefits, and for other purposes.

H.R. 8100 – To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to hire psychiatrists.

H.R. 8072 – To review the termination characterization of former employees of the Department of State who were fired by reason of the sexual orientation of such employees, and for other purposes.

H.R. 8051 – To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to impose an additional 1000 percent excise tax on the sale of large capacity ammunition feeding devices and semiautomatic assault weapons, and for other purposes.

REP. MARK AMODEI

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 8100 – To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to hire psychiatrists.

REP. SUSIE LEE

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 8111 – To protect the privacy of personal reproductive or sexual health information, and for other purposes.

H.R. 8077 – To include reasonable costs for high-speed internet service in the utility allowances for families residing in public housing, and for other purposes.

This article was updated on Monday, June 20, 2022, at 7:32 a.m. to clarify that the Southern Nevada Water Authority's enforcement of waste water regulations helped conservation efforts.

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