Indy Q&A: SNWA general manager on the Colorado River and preparing for a drier future
Colorado River officials face a math problem.
Already, there is not enough water flowing through the Colorado River to meet all of the demands on the watershed, which spans seven U.S. states and crosses into Mexico. And as the climate changes, scientists warn that those who depend on the watershed should plan to receive even less water each year.
This year, federal water officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the first official shortage on the Colorado as the two largest reservoirs for the river — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — dropped to their lowest levels since they were filled in the last century. Lake Mead, which is held back by the Hoover Dam, currently sits at 1,065 feet above sea level — that’s roughly 34 percent full (when Lake Mead is full, the reservoir can be filled to about 1,220 feet).
Already, the Lower Colorado River Basin states that rely on Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — have been meeting to discuss and find funding for a program that would keep more water in the reservoir in an attempt to stave off further shortages and cuts. That plan would keep about 500,000 acre-feet in the reservoir next year and in 2023. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that can fill one-acre, approximately the size of a football field, to a one-foot depth).
The states came together to develop the plan as part of a consultation clause in an existing 2019 agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan. That plan builds off of a set of operating guidelines for the river, approved in 2007 and set to expire in 2026. At the same time that water officials from the seven Colorado River states tackle near-term issues, they are all positioning to negotiate a new set of guidelines.
The Colorado River is governed by a series of overlapping laws, contracts, compacts and agreements, including the guidelines. Working within these structures, the states face a major challenge — to reduce use on the river and prepare for the worst-case scenario of a future with far less water to go around. Next month, water officials from across the basin are set to meet in Las Vegas to discuss that challenge and other issues facing the river.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the states will be able to find a way to lower use “because of the structures we’ve already put in place.” He noted that if Lake Mead were to hit 1025 feet above sea level, current agreements would already trigger cuts of about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.
The Nevada Independent spoke to Entsminger about the negotiations and how dry of a future Colorado River water officials should plan for. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the Colorado River moving forward?
I hate to be obvious, but the biggest challenge for the river is we have a lot less water than people have legal entitlements.
How does that play into discussions around management as they’re evolving right now?
It makes the interstate and international discussions much more difficult, because really what you're ultimately doing is negotiating to divide up a far smaller pie than what was believed to be the case in the 20th century.
You mentioned not that long ago, testifying in Congress, that “the river community is far from a consensus about how dry of a future to plan for.” What are some of the differing opinions right now? And where are people on establishing that baseline of what the future looks like for the river?
I was on a panel at the University of Colorado Law School within the last six weeks or so. And a couple people on the panel were asked that question of how dry a future should we be planning for, and I said I thought an 11 million acre-feet annual flow of the river is probably a good place to start based upon what I've heard from folks like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall and other smart climate scientists.
But there were some folks on that panel that threw out a number of 13 to 14 million acre-feet, which, frankly, is quite a bit more water than the average of the last 20 years. So I think just from that exchange, you can see that there isn't currently a consensus on what sort of worst-case scenario should we be planning for, as we negotiate operating guidelines for post-2026.
Let’s take that number, 11 million acre-feet. What would it mean in terms of water use to get to that number?
As a basin (seven states plus the country of Mexico), we’re currently using about 14 [million acre-feet]. So it would mean finding a way to cut current uses by three million acre-feet and not add any new uses, at least without retiring a commensurate amount of existing uses.
Knowing how hard it is to reduce use, that sounds like a very big challenge. Do you think that’s an achievable goal?
That’s the amount of water that Mother Nature gives us. We don’t really have a choice whether or not to achieve it. You have to find a way to live within the amount of water that nature actually gives you.
Looking at the whole picture, you have this need to cut and reduce use. But at the same time, there are proposals to bring on new demand like the Lake Powell Pipeline and things like that. How do you view those as these negotiations develop?
I view all new uses. And I want to be clear, I mean everywhere in the basin. I’m not singling out any state, I'm not singling out the Upper Basin or the Lower Basin. If you look at it just as a math problem — you’re using 14 and you need to get to 11. If you’re adding any new use onto the 14, that's contributing to the existing imbalance unless you're simultaneously retiring other uses. So it's two sides of the same coin. The need to cut existing uses is only exacerbated by adding new uses.
Nevada has a far smaller allocation of the river than any of the other states. But at the same time, Southern Nevada is very dependent on the Colorado River for its water supply. How do you view Nevada's place in these negotiations, and the discussion around how to manage the river moving forward?
The role Nevada has traditionally played in trying to advance Colorado River policy is to be extremely pragmatic, to not worry too much about how we got to where we are but to try to advance real-world solutions for how to live within whatever Mother Nature gives us.
There is plenty of history on the river of people being very dogmatic and wanting the words on the page to control over the amount of water we actually have. We need to speak truth to power and be willing to walk the walk in our own backyard. We have to be willing to conserve water here, even though we have 1.8 percent of the river. We have to be extremely good stewards of our small part of the Colorado River in order to have the credibility to try to lead on water policy.
I want to ask about this because I think it is at the top of mind for a lot of people, and it’s been discussed a lot over the past year or two, which is the Clark County lands bill and the questions about how Las Vegas grows in the coming decades. Water always seems to come up in those discussions. From your role, how should policymakers be viewing growth and the situation on the Colorado River in the Las Vegas Valley, or even outside of Las Vegas Valley?
Well I think our situation locally is a microcosm for the larger river issues. We are likely to have less water legally than we were awarded under the 1922 Compact, under the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act. And we need to be prepared to live with less water. So if we want to continue to diversify our economy, the trade-offs are going to be using less water in order to accommodate those future uses.
Just in the past week or so, the infrastructure bill was passed and signed. There are provisions in the infrastructure bill dealing with the Colorado River. specifically. And I'm curious, heading into this drier future, or planning for it, what do you see as the role of infrastructure in the basin?
One of the biggest infrastructure projects we're looking at is the regional reuse project in Southern California, that we have a partnership with Metropolitan [Water District of Southern California] on to help fund that capital expansion. That could be some real new water into our portfolio by really reusing every drop of water that we do have [on the Colorado River].
Heading into the next few weeks, there's a big Colorado River conference in Las Vegas. I'm curious, looking ahead now, what is the status of the negotiations for the post-2026 guidelines? Have those conversations started?
We've had some conversations. We've looked at some different hydrologies. But a lot of focus [was on near-term issues], because of how bad the winter was last year. I would have expected there to have been more negotiations during 2021… But I expect those negotiations to pick up steam in 2022, especially now that all new Biden appointments are in place.
How do these negotiations take place? Is there a table with everybody or are they sort of discussed on a more ad hoc basis?
You’ll hear a lot of discussion within the basin about everyone wanting to be at the table. What I would tell you is there's not one table right there. The closest analogy I've heard is, someone called it like being at a huge wedding. And there’s 100 tables, but everybody’s walking around moving from table to table having different conversations.
I've heard it described as network governance. There are tables I won’t be at. And there will be tables I’m at that other people want to be at and they probably can't be at that table.
But at the end of the day, you need all seven states, you need the major water users, you need the tribes, you need big nongovernmental organizations and the conservation community, you need the country of Mexico. If you're going to have a deal — or consensus-based deal that ultimately needs to pass Congress — you're going to need all of those constituencies to be OK with it.
One thing I've been following from afar is this commission on water courts, and a discussion about litigating water rights and claims in the state. I'm curious what your experience has been like on that commission to discuss water courts, and if you think that water courts are something that Nevada should consider?
Well, the commission isn't done yet. It's a work in progress. So I want to probably withhold judgments on what those recommendations are going to be. But I tend to think that we don't really need water courts in Nevada. We’re the dry state in the union. Frankly, I don't know that there's enough water litigation to set up a full-time water court.
I believe Colorado has seven divisions of water courts, but they’re a headwaters state with rivers flowing out to Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah. They have water flowing out of every one of their borders. So it makes a lot of sense for them to have that governance structure in place.
So I don't necessarily think that would be a good model for Nevada. What I do think would be helpful would probably be more specific definitions, either within statute or within regulations, to assist in the efficient adjudication of water claims.
You don’t think the lack of water can also lead to a lot of litigation?
It can. The lack of water is the source of most water litigation. There are not a lot of fights about too much water. But at the same time, I’m not aware of an overwhelming amount of water litigation going on in the state that would justify that sort of a standalone governance structure. And I’m not saying I would be opposed to it. Most of the models that have been pointed out to me have a much, much heavier caseload at least that I’m aware of within Nevada.
The drought is not just affecting the Colorado River. There's a lot of other water issues in Nevada and across the West. What can be learned from the experience on the Colorado River and these discussions about managing the Colorado River for other disputes over water?
The first thing I would say is I think it's difficult to take the experience on one river and then just transpose it onto another river system that has a lot of different issues. But I guess I would answer the question [this way]. Thus far, between 1995 and 2019, I think the Colorado River was considered to be one of the more successfully managed rivers in terms of adapting to changing circumstances. And primarily, the way we accomplished that was by having all the water users at the table, getting things negotiated.
When we showed up to Congress to get the [Drought Contingency Plan] passed in 2019, you had all seven states, you had the country of Mexico, you had all the major water users with one notable exception, you had major national environmental groups, and you had Native American tribes in Arizona, all testifying in favor of passing it. That legislation passed by unanimous consent — 100 to zero in the Senate, and 435 to zero in the House of Representatives. Congress was about 535 to zero decisions a decade. And we got that one done. You watch Congress the same as I do, and I don’t recall that many 525 to zero decisions in the past decade. And we got that one done. So that would be the lesson I would point to, from the Colorado.