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As Weather Warms, What's The State Of Our River?

As the weather warms up, the water level of Lake Mead will once again become a topic of conversation - and a worry.

By now, most people have heard that the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains was very low this year.

That means less runoff from the western slopes of the Rockies into the Colorado River.

That’s not just a potential problem for Nevada. The lower Colorado helps sustain Arizona, Utah, California and New Mexico. Lake Mead is the storage facility for the lower Colorado River and the level at the lake has been dropping for years. 

Nevada Public Radio’s Rachel Christiansen and Luke Runyon of NPR Member Station KUNC recently returned from a weeklong tour of the lower Colorado River with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

"We are seeing a historic drought that hasn't been seen for at least 100 years," Christiansen said, "And this is one of the worst periods of drought that is on record."

Christiansen said there is a shifting mindset among those involved in conversations about water use that this is no longer a drought that will eventually end but it is the new normal.

"With changing climate patterns to hotter, drier years, that snowpack is going to continue decline and continue to affect water going into the Colorado River and those lake levels will continue to drop because of that," she said.

But the future where Lake Mead levels have dropped to a point where a shortage needs to be declared is not years and years away, Luke Runyon said. 

"It is becoming a reality," he said, "Next year, the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency in charge of Hoover Dam, says if nothing else changes and if states don't conserve even more water, then that shortage level is very much a reality in 2019."

When that shortage level is hit, which the lake is just 13 feet from right now, the Department of the Interior will take over the distribution of the water and Arizona will be the first state to be required to cut back.

He said many people involved in the management of water in the West do not want to see a headline stating that a water shortage has been declared. That alone is providing a strong incentive to conserve.

But Christiansen said many people in the conservation community do not believe that state and local governments are doing enough to push conservation. 

Right now, about 40 percent of Southern Nevada's water goes towards indoor use, Christiansen said, but that water can be recycled and put back into the system. 

It is the 60 percent that is going to outdoor uses like lawns, landscaping and swimming pools that cannot be brought back into the water system.

Heidi Kyser, staff writer for Desert Companion , has written extensively about water issues and conservation in the West. She said conservationists have told her that even a small flip in that ratio would conserve enough water to continue Las Vegas' growth.

"You could build a lot if you just tweak that ratio a little bit more," she said, "So in other words, we don't necessarily need to find more water."

However, part of the problem has been moving that needle on outdoor use. Kyser pointed out that people who like to have lawns and pools will pay more money for the water they use in order to maintain their lifestyle.

"The argument I often hear from water managers is that you can't tax people into conserving," she said, "If they want those features, they're just going to pay more for them."

So besides conservation, what can Southern Nevada do to secure its water future? 

The Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan includes building a pipeline to bring water from counties in central and northern Nevada to Southern Nevada. 

The plan has been extremely controversial for several reasons, including the multi-billion dollar price tag and the idea of pulling water away from Nevada ranchers.

But supporters like the idea because it provides one of the few solutions that doesn't require cooperation from other states.

"The pipeline is our only in-state project," Kyser said, "So, we could do that in Nevada without anyone else's permission without having to desalinate water in California or Mexico."

As far as the idea of desalination goes, cost has always been its biggest problem. Christiansen pointed out that building and maintaining a desalination plant is still extremely expensive. On top of that, the price tag for moving that water would exorbitant. 

Runyon noted that current plans under discussion include trades; for instance, one state could pay for a desalination plant in Mexico in exchange for their allotment of Colorado River water. 

Whatever the future holds, one of the underlying problems with the river is based in the past. When the water allotments were first agreed on in the 1920s, the Colorado River had much more water in it than it does now.

"The Colorado River is over-allocated," Runyon said, "There is more water that exists on paper than actually exists in reality. That is the big reason behind Lake Mead's decline."

Luke Runyon, reporter, NPR member station KUNC; Rachel Christiansen, producer, KNPR's State of Nevada; Heidi Kyser, staff writer, Desert Companion

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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.