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Indy Environment: Water authority looks at investment in Southern California water reuse project — in exchange for Colorado River water

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime

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The Southern Nevada Water Authority has expressed interest in helping finance a wastewater reuse project being pursued by Southern California's municipal wholesale water provider.

The goal: To free up Colorado River water. 

The concept looks something like this. If the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) could recycle a portion of its water, it could reduce its overall consumption of Colorado River water stored at Lake Mead. In turn, the water authority would help fund the project in exchange for additional water that MWD would be able to leave in the reservoir because of it.

Such a project is in the early stages, and it could take at least a decade to build out. Still, the water authority and MWD are actively discussing a potential partnership. John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, said he hoped there would be a preliminary deal next spring.

On Wednesday, the water authority presented the project to its community advisory board. Earlier this month, the potential partnership was discussed at an MWD committee meeting. 

Two decades of drought have left the country’s largest reservoir near Las Vegas diminished, with the specter of climate change only adding to concerns about an arid future. Even under a climate change scenario of low streamflow on the Colorado River and population growth, the water authority has said it will not need to supplement its current water resources for decades. 

Around mid-century, its projections suggest that new supplies could be necessary. One potential solution could be to increase the amount of Colorado River water that is available at Lake Mead. 

The deal with MWD could be one way of doing that. The two water agencies are still negotiating how much water the deal could free up. Nevada is entitled to about 300,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River, a small portion compared to other states (an acre-foot is equal to the amount of water that can fill one acre of land up to one foot). Last year, it consumed about 234,000 acre-feet.

“We’ve had a long-term partnership with Southern Nevada,” said Bill Hasencamp, who manages MWD's Colorado River supply. 

If the project moves forward, it would cost about $3.4 billion, recycling water for about $1,800 per acre-foot, Hasencamp said. It has not yet been determined what Nevada’s financial contribution would be. The project would still need to be approved by both the water district’s full board the MWD board.  

The project is similar to other water-swapping proposals. Minute 323, a binational agreement between the United States and Mexico, tasked a working group with studying desalination plants. New supplies would allow Colorado River users to more easily exchange water at Lake Mead. 

Here’s what else I’m watching:

Colorado River (cont.): Hundreds of Colorado River water users met in Las Vegas last week for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference. The gathering was not as high-profile as it was last year, when the states were given a hard deadline for finishing drought plans. But it was still an interesting step in understanding what comes next. Here’s my story on some themes: climate change, tribal rights. The basic takeaway: Everyone across the basin is looking at a future with less water in the system. Nevada is well-positioned as a new round of negotiations begin. With new infrastructure, it is arguably the most water secure state in the basin. One more thing: Entsminger was named the new head of the association on Monday.

If you want to read more, there were a few good articles about the conference. On tribal rights (Blog Post). More voices to the Table (KUNC). And climate change (Arizona Republic)

Burners sue: The operator of Burning Man — Black Rock City LLC — is suing the Bureau of Land Management. From Bloomberg, which broke the story: “Black Rock City LLC alleges that it paid a total of more than $18 million for BLM’s costs of administering the annual event between 2015 and 2019. [The company] also paid over $2.9 million to BLM as an estimate for the cost of the 2019 event, much of which was “unsupported by any reasoned explanation,” the complaint alleges.” The Reno Gazette Journal has more with context about tensions with the agency.

It’s official: There’s a new top water regulator in Nevada. Here’s my blog post from last week. 

Cattle and cheatgrass: Cheatgrass is a highly-flammable invasive species that has overtaken ranges across Nevada and the Mountain West. It has amplified wildfires across the Great Basin. Livestock grazing is often seen as a way to reduce the amount of flammable, dry vegetation on the ground. It turns out simply relying on traditional grazing might not be helping the problem. 

The US Geological Survey released a new study on the issue: “Researchers… examined 14 years of data from 417 sites across the central Great Basin to identify the effects of livestock grazing, fire, precipitation, and topography on cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence.” Their big finding: “A key result is...that livestock grazing corresponds with increased cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence, regardless of variation in climate, topography, or plant community composition.” What that means: One of the researchers involved told KUNC that targeted grazing could still help, but “we probably have to rethink how we’re approaching both livestock management and fire management if the goal is to actually restore native plant communities.”

The ground beneath you: The Las Vegas Sun did a great, well-informed story that captures the interplay between groundwater and surface water resources. Although most of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s supply comes from the Colorado River, the agency still taps water from the ground. Las Vegas has made strides in curbing pumping, but overpumping issues still loom.

Oil, round II: It’s not just about nominations. Much of the debate over oil and gas in Nevada has focused on how land is nominated through the Bureau of Land Management’s process. Anyone can nominate land and often land is nominated where there is very little interest in developing it. No one is quite sure why these nominations are being made. Both conservationists and an oil industry trade group concede that there are “bad actors.” But beyond this discussion, there is a broader question about policies around fossil fuel extraction. Last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used a swing through Nevada as a place to announce his opposition to leasing land for oil extraction in the Ruby Mountains — and across federal lands. That’s a much more sweeping position that aligns with Sanders’ stances on banning fracking and moving from fossil fuels. And it prompted a response from a Western oil industry lobbyist in the Review-Journal: “We support responsible leasing and fracking in Nevada. We encourage BLM to concentrate resources on legitimate lease nominations, not on poorly thought-out, bulk nominations from a few bad actors."

Save it for your Thursday afternoon cup of coffee: The Interim Committee on Public Lands met earlier this week. Southern Nevada agencies presented. There was an exhaustive overview of the Clark County Lands Bill. But what a few people flagged were comments from an Air Force colonel who suggested that tribal opposition for the proposed 300,000 acre military expansion was limited to one individual from the Moapa Band of Paiutes. The Air Force official said that 16 of 17 regional tribes support the military expansion. ‘Pretty stunning:’ A lawyer for the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe called that characterization “inaccurate.” Both the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe have passed resolutions that oppose expanding the Nevada Test and Training Range. Among their concerns are access to land and cultural sites. Several tribal members were at a rally we covered in 2017. “It was pretty stunning to hear,” said Las Vegas Assemblyman Howard Watts III, a Democrat. “It was a complete misrepresentation of the stance of any tribal entity.” “It was very dismissive and insulting,” Watts added, noting that the colonel referred to tribal members as “Moapans.” A link to the hearing in full (starts at 1:42).


  • Western governors form council to target invasive species (AP)
  • These seven industrial farm operations are draining Arizona's aquifers. If you read to the bottom, a well-known Las Vegas homebuilder makes a cameo (Arizona Republic)
  • Interior Department, states appeal sage grouse ruling (KNPR)
  • Interior Secretary David Bernhardt spoke about the BLM’s move West during his gaggle with reporters at the Colorado River conference in Las Vegas. (AP)

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