There’s a gush of water news, most of it bad
Prepare for another onslaught of conference presentations beginning with the exhausted joke about whiskey being for drinking and water being for fighting. There’s a lot going on in Nevada water news — so much that the constant drip, drip, drip is likely to leave many people drowning in information they can’t absorb. The three biggest stories are about the Colorado River, the water pipeline, and Pahrump wells. Taken together, they suggest a shift in thinking, from joking about our water woes, to getting serious about conservation. Here’s an explainer for each.
First, a reminder: The Colorado River supplies water to seven states, which are divided into two basins, upper and lower. Based on the best estimates available at the time, the 1922 Colorado River Compact distributed about 7.5 million acre-feet to each basin, to be further parsed among the states. Because Nevada had relatively little agriculture and few people at the time, it got only 300,000 acre-feet, compared with 2.85 million for Arizona and 4.4 million for California, its fellow lower-basin states.
Fast forward to today. The Colorado supports 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico. Because of a 19-year drought, there is a significantly lighter average annual flow in the river than there was when the water allocation was made almost 100 years ago. Add climate change to the mix, and, well … you see where this is going. The river is in trouble.
There are two main reservoirs to store water for the upper and lower basins. Lake Mead, the source of 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water, is one of them. So, what happens to Lake Mead directly affects us. (And vice versa.)
The Bureau of Reclamation is the main regulatory and research body for the Colorado. So basin states keep a close eye on the bureau’s reports of average annual flows, reservoir levels, and similar things. They determine when/if shortages will trigger mandatory water cuts. In the first round of cuts, which would go into effect if Lake Mead were to fall below 1,075 feet, Nevada would see a reduction of 13,000 acre-feet. We wouldn’t really feel any pain, though, because we’re already using less than our allotment (unlike Arizona, which would lose 320,000 acre-feet).
The bureau’s recent reports are discouraging. They suggest that mandatory cuts are more likely than not to happen by 2020. There’s a silver lining to that storm cloud, however: Forced to the table by the dire situation, the seven states hammered out preliminary drought contingency plans in October. The plans, to manage water cuts and minimize their effects, still have to be finalized, which may not happen until next year.
They have ample motivation to get moving. A 2015 study estimated that the Colorado River has an annual economic impact on its reliant regions of $1.4 trillion.
Perhaps all this explains why the Southern Nevada Water Authority, or SNWA, shifted its marketing message this year, from the anodyne, “It’s a desert out there — be water smart!” to the survivalist-themed “Are you preparing for the future?”
Coincidentally, the SNWA’s proposed water pipeline is listed on the agency’s website under “Preparing for the Future.” What is the pipeline? Exactly what it sounds like: a mechanism for pumping groundwater from one area and moving it somewhere else. It’s exactly as popular with the people living the area whose water is to be exported as one might expect, which is to say not at all.
Some history: From the late ’80s through the ’90s, the Las Vegas Water District and SNWA bought land and filed water-rights applications along a corridor of verdant valleys in eastern Nevada. By connecting these rights and adding the necessary infrastructure, the authority figured, it could get the water that its booming metropolis needed to continue thriving if Lake Mead ever ran low. A litany of lawsuits and petitions to state and federal regulatory agencies followed, stymieing the project. The authority does maintain it as a viable backup plan, however.
The details: SNWA has tweaked the plan over the years; as it stands now, the authority would pump some 200,000 acre-feet of water annually and transport it across more than 250 miles. Opponents believe it would destroy 200 square miles of natural and cultural resources.
The latest: In August the Nevada state engineer, Jason King, denied SNWA’s applications in four critical valleys, ruling the authority can’t prove the pipeline wouldn’t cause environmental harm and infringe on existing water rights. It wasn’t a total loss for SNWA, though, since King also approved its plan to manage, mitigate, and monitor environmental damage caused by the pipeline (should it start operating), and indicated he would support an appeal on the application’s denial because he disagrees with a relevant court interpretation of water law.
King is also involved in a controversy over Pahrump’s aquifer. Last December, the Nye County Water District’s governing board sent King a letter noting that the Pahrump Artesian Basin is drastically overallocated. King issued an order, No. 1293, declaring that a dedicated water right would be required to drill any new wells. People who own undeveloped land, which they thought came with water rights, lost their minds. They, along with real estate agents and well-drillers, filed a joint lawsuit against the state.
The math: The Pahrump Basin yields about 20,000 acre-feet of water a year. Historical data indicate the basin’s water level has been falling since the 1950s. Existing water rights allow for as much as 22,560 acre-feet to be withdrawn. Based on property data, the county estimates that another 8,500 wells could be drilled. King revised that to 8,000. At two acre-feet per well, that would mean another 16,000 acre-feet promised. In case you can’t add it all up in your head, that’s a deficit of 18,560 acre-feet.
Caveats: Order 1293 didn’t originally apply to rehabilitating or re-drilling existing wells. In July, King amended it further to exclude those who had already filed an intent to drill and/or sought related zoning permits before the order took effect. The lawsuit is still pending.