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Drought, growth, complacency and the Review-Journal's water story

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Heidi Kyser

Let us spray

As a local journalist who’s covered water issues, I scratched my head while reading Jennifer Robison’s June 13 Review Journal story, “Water isn’t a worry when it comes to Las Vegas growth.” Take this statement, for instance:

The (recent media) coverage downplays or discounts measures that have kept Southern Nevada in water as the population doubled and Colorado River share went unchanged. / One example: The fact that the valley recycles all indoor wastewater is treated as suspect water-accounting sleight of hand, or ignored altogether.

Hmm. Perhaps Robison missed local reporter Conor Shine’s cover story for the June 7-13, 2015, issue of The Sunday, which includes this:

Las Vegas has done its part for now, investing more than $1 billion in new intake and pumping facilities at Lake Mead while undertaking conservation measures that cut water consumption by 23 percent, even as the valley’s population grew by half a million people.

Support comes from

Or any number of relevant passages from Matt Jenkins’ lengthy March 2015 biography of Pat Mulroy in High Country News, as summarized in this photo caption:

Patricia Mulroy in 1996 at the new Southern Nevada Water Authority Desert Demonstration Garden in Las Vegas. The Water Authority would go on to institute conservation measures that reduced per capita household water use in Vegas by about a third and slowed Vegas water usage even as population exploded.

Or this exchange, from my own interview with current Southern Nevada water boss John Entsminger, from March 2014:

Can you unpack that (our community’s success with water conservation), please?

In 2002, we consumptively used 325,000 acre feet of water off the river. Last year, we used approximately 240,000. So we’ve reduced our consumptive use of water off the river by about a third. We have an annual legal entitlement to 300,000, so we’re not using 60,000 of that. So, at 1,075, the first (mandated) cut for Nevada is 13,000 acre feet, which would take us down to 287,000. But we’re only using 240,000.

So we have a little bit of a cushion before we’d feel the cuts.

Yeah. At 1,050 feet (at Lake Mead), it (the cut in our allotment of river water) goes to 17,000 (acre feet). And at 1,025 it goes to 20,000. So, even at the third level of cut, we still aren’t using enough water to require anybody to begin mandatory rationing.

I’d say we’ve gotten SNWA’s message about cutting consumption while growing population loud and clear. (I’d also like to see examples of the media doing what Robison claims in her four introductory bullet points. Where, for instance, has any serious water reporter said that “the Las Vegas Valley uses more Colorado River water than it has rights to”?)

The RJ story also had a couple apparent self-contradictions. On one hand, for instance, Robison holds Las Vegas up as a leader in water conservation, pointing to public programs such as the turf-replacement rebate and new-construction restrictions on water-guzzling features and fixtures post-2001. On the other hand, she cites data demonstrating that Las Vegans consume more water per person per year than residents of any other major Western city she lists. Even accounting for return-flow credits (a deduction for water that goes back to the reservoir after use), we still consume twice as much per capita as San Franciscans and nearly 30 gallons more than Tucsonans. How does this make us a model for smart growth?

In another example, the story’s thesis is that there’s plenty of water to support growth. “The water is there,” Robison writes. “It’s ‘should we grow?’ rather than ‘we can’t grow.’” On the other hand, she quotes David Pierce of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego saying, “The problem is, more (water) has been promised than has been available. Climate change is going to make that worse. All of these things are conspiring to give us really significant problems.”

To understand the logic, you have to go back to the “could or should” question. Robison isn’t saying there’s plenty of water to support the entire Colorado River Basin. She’s saying there’s enough in our small piece of the pie for us to keep doing things the way we have the last 15 years; namely, building housing developments and hotels. Should we do that, just because we can? The implied answer in the article is, “Yes,” and, certainly, our current economy depends on it.

But if the drought has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not just citizens of Las Vegas; we’re part of a vast, fragile network of people and plants and wildlife and farms and factories and economies — all depending on the Colorado River. No one argued this more elegantly than former SNWA boss Pat Mulroy. It was she who, with a landmark 2007 deal, shifted the perspective on the law of the river from “every man for himself” to “we’re all in this together.” In my last interview with her, she told me this was her proudest moment.

On my way home from work yesterday, I stopped to snap a photo of a neighbor whose sprinklers were running full-bore in the wind and sun at 5:30 in the evening. Most of that drinking-quality water wasn’t even hitting the lawn, on which I’ve never seen anyone sit or play; what did would mostly have evaporated before sundown. Just because my neighbors can do that, should they? If so, why, when my friends in Pasadena should not?

The water authority is quick to point out that domestic use is a tiny fraction in the water equation. I get that. I’m also certain that, besides continuing to pursue what he’s described as the “low-hanging fruit” of turf replacement and other conservation programs, Entsminger is having conversations with his fellow powers that be on the Colorado River about matters that are way above my or Robison’s or any reporter’s pay grade. Most of us can’t imagine the deals that are being made, the technologies tested, the ideas entertained, to get all these states and municipalities out of the jam they’re currently in.

I hope they’re thinking outside the box. I hope there’s more to come like the pact with Mexico and the fund to help farmers fallow crops. Lots more. Because if there’s one thing I’m sure we can all agree on, it’s that complacency is for losers.

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