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Water conservation critical for imminent Colorado River shortages

John Entsminger
John Entsminger
Opinion
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Lake Mead and the bathtub ring around the reservoir

Lake Mead provides 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply, and the nation’s largest man-made body of water just hit its lowest level since being filled in the 1930s. While the ongoing, multi-decadal drought continues to stress water supplies for all Colorado River water users, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has been preparing for this for nearly 20 years. With a federal water shortage declaration expected later this summer, Southern Nevada’s commitment to water conservation takes on new urgency. Now is the time for all Southern Nevadans to recommit to water conservation, using the tools and practices we have in place to drive down water use.

This historic drought began in the early 2000s when Southern Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. In 2002, the Colorado River experienced its lowest recorded flows on record. That same year, Southern Nevada used more water than it ever had before. Recognizing the need to shift our water use behavior and build a conservation ethic, this community embraced and implemented the most progressive and comprehensive water conservation program in the nation. This included seasonal watering restrictions, golf course water budgets, a grass replacement program, water waste penalties, and changes to municipal codes that significantly reduced the impact of new development on our water supply.  

Thanks to the support of residents and businesses, those efforts worked, delivering unprecedented water-saving results. Last year, Southern Nevada used 23 percent less Colorado River water than we did in 2002, even while adding nearly 800,000 new residents and maintaining a prosperous and robust economy during that same time. All while using less water. Additionally, since 2002, per-person water use has steeply dropped by 47 percent.

But we have become complacent in recent years, and our community’s water consumption has ticked upward. With declining water levels in Lake Mead, every resident and business must continue to stay focused on water conservation.

Based on Colorado River projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, there is near certainty that a water shortage will be declared by the federal government in August. In total, our local water supply will be cut by 21,000 acre-feet next year – enough to serve about 45,000 valley households for a year. Should Lake Mead’s water level continue to decline, additional cuts will follow.

Last spring, SNWA completed a low lake level pumping station to work in tandem with Intake No. 3 and ensuring access to our water supply even if Lake Mead drops too low to pass water through Hoover Dam for power generation or downstream demands.

With this infrastructure in place, we are pursuing a new partnership with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to develop a water recycling system that will safely and sustainably reuse Los Angeles’ treated wastewater currently discharged to the Pacific Ocean. This partnership contemplates SNWA’s financial participation to receive a share of water from the project, which would be exchanged for an equal share of California’s water allocation and accessed from Lake Mead. This will increase our community’s water supplies and provide additional water resources for the future.

Recently, the Legislature passed AB356, prohibiting the use of Colorado River water to irrigate nearly 4,000 acres of unused, decorative grass in our valley by the end of 2026. This is grass in medians, roundabouts, business centers, HOA entrances and bordering parking lots and streets. This decorative grass consumes about 10 percent of our annual water supply – three times more water than is consumed by the entire Las Vegas Strip. This initiative will save nearly 30,000 acre-feet of water annually and help our community manage Colorado River shortage conditions.

While SNWA continues to invest in the partnerships and programs necessary to protect our water supply, residents and businesses must step up their conservation commitment by adhering to the mandatory seasonal watering restrictions, replacing grass with water-smart landscaping, stopping water waste and participating in SNWA’s conservation incentive programs. These efforts are essential to our community’s long-term viability and economic success. And, they are proven to work.

While SNWA’s 50-year water resources plan accounts for extended Colorado River shortages and provides for long-term water security, it also requires that we all conserve water at greater levels than we currently do. Protecting your investment in Southern Nevada means being invested in water conservation. We have the capability, the obligation, and the need to be the most water-efficient community in the nation, and it is the responsibility of every Southern Nevadan living and working here to help achieve that goal.  

John Entsminger is the General Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

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