If you haven’t watched local government TV lately, and you’re excused if that’s the case, you might have missed an understated but massive message about water and the ongoing drought.
Southern Nevada is using less water from the Colorado River than allowed, in large part because the area returns recycled water to the river.
But looking ahead, that trend will slow and likely reverse unless changes are made.
That led Clark County commissioners to ask if developers must include water use in their plans when they ask for approval to build.
If that happens, it would be an immense change in Clark County, where for years local governments rarely asked developers questions about growth beyond, "Can we get more?"
How’d we get here? What do water authorities see that is causing concern? And what more needs to be done?
In a December zoning meeting, Clark County commissioners had those questions for John Entsminger, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
At the meeting, he outlined Southern Nevada’s population growth. At the same time, the area used less water than allowed through the Colorado River agreement. Since 2002, the population grew by 750,000. At the end of 2021, water use was down 26%.
“We've really accomplished that by being a global leader in urban water conservation. Our biggest program has been our water smart landscape program to incentivize people to take out turf from their homes and businesses. But we've really had a full suite of conservation measures over the last 20 years to be able to achieve those results,” he said.
The incentive program offers $3 per foot up to 10,000 square feet.
In that same meeting, Entsminger noted as great as their achievements have been, the area’s usage in gallons per capita per day – 112 – has stagnated.
“What I was highlighting to the commission is now is no time to be resting on our laurels. The Colorado River is in serious trouble,” he said. “And we're going to need to do more to ensure a safe and reliable water supply for our community.”
He addressed the desire to eliminate evaporate coolers on new construction moving forward. He noted Southern Nevada mainly consumes water through three ways: outdoor irrigation, evaporate coolers and septic systems.
SNWA is working with the business community regarding the coolers to come up with a “solution that can be implemented uniformly across jurisdictional boundaries, and can allow economic diversification to continue, but also doing so in a way that recognizes our finite water resources,” Entsminger said.
Coolers use about 7,500 acre-feet of water, which Entsminger said is worth about $200 million in terms of finding a replacement supply.
Within the last few months, Entsminger said the Las Vegas Valley Water District prohibited installation of new turf anywhere except parks, schools and cemeteries. New, single-family homes will not be allowed to have turf.
All nonfunctional grass will be eliminated retroactively by 2026, following a Nevada Legislature approval. It’s aimed at 3,900 acres around the Las Vegas Valley. “We think, generally speaking, it only gets walked on by the person who's mowing it.”
Will this mean homeowners in neighborhoods with older homes will need to get rid of their yards?
“We always say conservation is a journey. It's not a destination,” he said. “That sort of mandate is not in our 50-year resource plan.”
The plan is adjusted each year.
“We've known [extreme drought and climate change would impact the region] since 2002, which was the driest year in the recorded history of the Colorado River,” he said. Then, 2020 and 2021 broke drought records again and again.
In the meantime, SNWA is working on persuading about 15,000 septic tank users to hook into the municipal system. Every drop of water that hits a drain in Southern Nevada, if you’re hooked in, goes to a treatment plant, then Lake Mead, and can be recycled. For those on septic systems, each shower, flush and hand wash is water immediately wasted.
Should residents worry?
“What I would tell the residents of Southern Nevada is you live in the most water-secure city in the desert Southwest,” he said. “We have invested $1.5 billion in the third intake and the low lake level pumping station at Lake Mead to ensure that we can access water supplies for the citizens of Southern Nevada, even in a condition where the federal government can't release water through Hoover Dam downstream to Arizona, California and Mexico.”
He said Clark County has spent 20 years building up water reserves. They also agreed to invest $750 million with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to invest in their regional recycling facility.
“You will hear people refer to the Colorado River as the most litigated river in the history of the world, which was probably true” through the 1970s, he said. “But the story of the last 25 years has really been one of cooperation, one of finding flexibility within the law of the river, of working with our partners in the environmental community, with Native American communities, with our partners in the country of Mexico.”
John Entsminger, general manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority