Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by

Writer Explores Western Water Scarcity In "Where the Water Goes"

An aerial view of the Colorado River.
Wikimedia Commons

An aerial view of the Colorado River.

Water is life. And Nevada is on the front lines of dealing with scarce water resources.

David Owen, a writer for The New Yorker, looks at water from the viewpoint of the Colorado River in his new book, "Where the Water Goes."

Owen details the history of the water agreements that have guided water use for decades. The most important agreement was created in 1922 and it detailed how the Colorado River was to be divided up between Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California. In the 20s, the planners and scientists divided the river based on the best science at the time but there was a big flaw, according to Owen. 

“Unfortunately, it was the wettest period since the 1400s and they divided up more water than there actually was in the river,” he said.

Now, there is a lot less water in the system because it is a more normal amount of water than in 1922, plus Nevada has been in a drought since the 1990s and climate change is pushing the amount of water in the system down, Owen said. 

Beyond the overall water allotment being misguided, Nevada's allotment is based on the population at the time, which is a lot lower than it is now. The Silver State could be getting more water than it does now, but there is a silver lining. 

“As a result, Las Vegas and Southern Nevada has some of the most stringent water conservation rules in the country,” Owen observed. He said the state has become a model of water conservation to other areas of the country. 

Despite the disproportionate water allotment, Owen said the states using the Colorado River have been reluctant to renegotiate the agreements for fear they might get a worse deal than they have now. Owen said the threat of federal government involvement has kept the states coordinating with each other in a way that could be used as a model for other conflict resolutions. 

Owen credits much of the cooperation to Southern Nevada's longtime water guru Pat Mulroy. Mulroy headed the Southern Nevada Water Authority during the heart of the building boom of the mid-90s. And although the area's growth was astonishing water use only went up by a fraction. 

“Partly with her guidance, people have come up with some pretty ingenious ways of juggling all of these pieces,” he said.

He also credits her with guaranteeing Southern Nevada's future by initiating the third straw intake at Lake Mead. 

“So, if the level of Lake Mead were to fall another 180 feet from where it is now, the only user from the lower Colorado River Basin would be Nevada,” Owen said because the water couldn't make it over the dam. 

While many people are concerned about water scarcity in the West, Owen believes there is so much at stake that all those people involved from farmers to city dwellers will work towards solutions. 

David Owen, writer, "Where the Water Goes"

Stay Connected
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.