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Coping With Western Drought With No End In Sight

Hoover Dam
Flickr/Raquel Baranow

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead in 2008. A severe drought has plagued the western United States for four years. With no end in sight, what are some real solutions. 

In the desert, water is more valuable than gold.

Drought has been gripping Nevada and the region for years.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown recently demanded a 25 percent cut in residential use after the drought reached extreme proportions there.  

Pat Mulroy formerly of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and currently the senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West told KNPR’s State of Nevada that Gov. Brown had little choice.

“What he did was his only option out there right now,” Mulroy said.

Jeffrey Kightlinger agrees. He is the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern Nevada.

“We are out of good options right now we’re making tough choices,” Kightlinger said. “We’ve had unprecedented drought this past years and it’s changed the playing field faster than we can react to it.”

Agriculture to blame?

The drought has people talking about who is using water and what can be done to conserve.

In California, the majority of water is used on agriculture. Areas that would be desert are instead growing crops.

Kightlinger admits agriculture is a big user, but it is also a big money maker.

“It’s a huge amount of water that is used by agriculture. But it’s a big part of our economy and they also have the rights to use that water. So, we have to work hand in hand with our agriculture partners,” Kightlinger said.

Mulroy doesn’t believe we’ll see a day with no crops growing in California, but there could be less or different farming.

“When I look into the future, I see a different relationship between cities and farmers and I see a different approach in how shared water resources are going to be managed,” she said.

But she believes it is important for agriculture to get involved in solutions early.

Ellen Hanak is the co-director of research for the Public Policy Institute of California.

She believes it is important for farmers to make their own decision about what crops they do or do not grow.

“It’s a bad idea to make decisions for farmers about what crops they should grow,” Hanak said.

She points out that farmers are business people who are better at making decisions of what can be profitable and what cannot than government workers in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

“What you want to do for farmers is make sure that the rules of the game are fair and that they’re using water that is theirs and not somebody else’s,” Hanak said.

Both Kightlinger and Hanak believe farmers in California can do a better job of ground water management.

Growing Cities to Blame?

When the water allotments from the Colorado River were first handed out, no one would have believed the Southwest would go through the kind of population explosion that it has.

However, Mulroy said increased population and increased water use do not go together.

“We keep thinking urban growth equals an increase in water use. Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

Las Vegas was able to cut its water use by a third while it added 400,000 people, according to Mulroy.

Kightlinger agrees that with the growth in Southern California there hasn’t been a corresponding leap in water use.  

Kightlinger’s organization is using incentives like the turf buy-back program, paying people to rip out high-water use grass for xeriscaping, to bring down water use. They’ve already paid out their budget but are still paying people because it is making a difference.

They’re also charging people who use more water than the basic amount extra on their bills.

The biggest water users in California are urban centers, agriculture and the environment. Kightlinger says balancing those users is vital.

“The trick is finding some consensus among those three interest groups,” Kightlinger said.

Hanak believes there will be more trading of water between agriculture and urban centers with urban centers coming out on top because of money.

“Water flows up hill to money,” she said.

What Will the Future Hold?

In Nevada, Governor Brian Sandoval created a blue-ribbon panel to research what more can be done to conserve water.

But some researchers believe drought conditions in the southwest could exist for another century and the last century of relatively wet weather is actually abnormal.

For Mulroy, California and Nevada both can do more to conserve and reuse water. Plus, technology could help because in the end efficiency won’t make the snowpack thicker.

“Just because you’re efficient doesn’t mean the next drought is not going to come,” Mulroy said.

She prickled at the idea that the lower Colorado River Basin could take water from the Upper Basin if the drought became severe enough.

“We gotta change our language. It is not “them” and “us” it is all of us,” Mulroy said.

She said if the conversation about water and drought continues to pit factions against factions, or cities against cities, or regions against regions, it will only hurt all of us in the long run.

If the drought continues for years, the upper basin will not be spared.

“There isn’t going to be anyone in this basin that isn’t going to feel the pinch,” Mulroy said.

For Kightlinger, it is a struggle to get people to understand their role in the whole water system.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting people to engage in water policy,” Kightlinger said.

But with pictures of receding reservoirs, mountainsides with no snow and an order from the governor of the most populous state in the nation, it is becoming more difficult for anyone to believe the drought is someone else’s problem.



Pat Mulroy, senior fellow for climate adaptation and environment policy, UNLV's Brookings Mountain West; Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Ellen Hanak, co-director of research, Public Policty Institute of California

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.