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Key water conference for Colorado River users underway in Las Vegas

Lake Mead
Associated Press

The annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association was founded and is held in Las Vegas, at Caesars Palace. This year, it sold out for the first time, but there’s no question why: the Colorado River is in trouble.

The conference focuses on use of the river by the seven states, Mexico and tribes —all of whom take more water from the river than is refilled each year.

That’s been going on for decades, but it’s more intense now because of the ongoing drought. In fact, we’re not calling it a drought anymore. The dryness we experience is the new normal — at least according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

So how does Southern Nevada, which gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, live with it? How do the 40 million people in seven states who rely on the river live within their water means?

That’s what the conference is all about.

Pat Mulroy is the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She’s on the faculty of the Desert Research Institute and a fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV. John Weisheit is the co-founder of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeepers; Jeff Kightlinger for 15 years was the CEO of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Zach Frankel is the executive director of Utah Rivers Council; and Alex Hager is covering the conference as the Colorado River reporter for KUNC.

'A good deal of anxiety'

The mood at the conference? According to Hager, “There are a lot of folks with a big stake in the success of the Colorado River and a good deal of anxiety about the fact that policymakers have not made any very serious forays into correcting this big supply-demand imbalance.”

He told State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann the main focus of the conference is coming up with new policy decisions to avert the crisis. “It’s kind of half a discussion of science and half a discussion of policy.” In one room, hydrological forecasters are presenting data on how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at record lows, and in the next room, he said, people who have the power to make allocation decisions are in a standoff.

At the Supreme Court, they have a case involving the rights of the Navajo. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, Southern California Water District and many others have filed court documents opposing additional water rights to the tribe noting the “megadrought accompanied by vastly depleted storage in Lake Mead.”

There’s certainly talk about it at the conference, Hager said, but “it remains to be seen how much of that is turning into action.”

He continued, “For the last few years at least … There have been talks from state leaders and from federal leaders about the need to include the voices of Indigenous people and their 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. … If you listen to the tribes here, they're not necessarily getting it yet. Right now, we are waiting to see how states decide to reshape rules before the year 2026. That's the big deadline for when the current guidelines for the Colorado River expire. And in all of those discussions, there is always a voice in the room and says, ‘And let's remember to make sure that tribes have a seat at the table here’. But there have been a number of instances in which there have been smaller deals formulated along the way. The tribes have spoken up and said, ’We were not adequately consulted while these were being drawn up.’ So it remains to be seen how much they'll be included in some of those bigger discussions. But so far, there is continued frustration that there is not enough tribal influence.’”

'If they don't, someone else will'

Mulroy thinks what comes of this conference is cuts across the board for all seven states. “We’ve talked about this for years, it’s all expected, it’s just come sooner than we expected.”

She said conservation isn’t going to cut it, and we’re going to have to talk about augmentation. The federal government earlier this year called for 2 to 4 million-acre-feet in cuts.

“It’s doable if people finally come to the table and get real,” Mulroy said. “I think the states are going to take control of this process … Because if they don’t, somebody else will.”

John Weisheit (L) and Pat Mulroy (R) with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann at Nevada Public Radio on Dec. 15, 2022.
Kristen DeSilva
John Weisheit (L) and Pat Mulroy (R) with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann at Nevada Public Radio on Dec. 15, 2022.

The river is at a critical point. But is it critical enough to sink in? Despite an order from the feds earlier this year, the seven states who use the river failed to come up with a new river use compact by an August deadline. And that compact is not going to be coming out of this conference, which this year will include talks about how to pay for some of the technology needed to maintain the river's viability.

But what might that include? By far, the biggest user of the river is California. Roughly 80% of the water it gets from the river is used for agriculture. Kightlinger was the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 15 years until 2021.

Since 2003, California has cut back a tremendous amount, he said. Billions of dollars were spent revamping farming systems. “And yet, California is still the biggest user and is going to have to do more. There is no way around it.”

Any further cuts, he said, are going to hurt agriculture and the economy, which becomes a national issue.

'It needs to be seen as a national priority'

"It's a complicated issue in California," Kightlinger said. "The general public is … not really aware of all these different droughts, and how they all work together, and all those impacts. When you get to ocean desalination… very expensive, extremely energy intensive, and California is on this ambitious push to be the old carbon free power and as energy efficient as possible.”

“These aren’t things that can be done individually, even as large as California is, and Arizona and Nevada, this is going to take federal intervention and this is going to take all our states, as well really helping the water districts," said Kightlinger. "It needs to be seen as a national priority. Because this is the food source for most of our nation, for a lot of the world, and this is the livelihood and economic success of 40 million people. So this is a real challenge. It’s treatable, but it needs to be treated as a national issue.”

So, are desalination plants the future? Mulroy thinks so.

“What we have is this confluence in this collision between power conservation and water conservation, and the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change, while simultaneously adapting,” Mulroy said.

Weisheit said we’ve known augmentation would be the answer for more than 60 years.

"The reservoirs are about to return to the status that they had before Hoover Dam was built, which is run of the river system. And that's what we have right now. We're about to go into that system again. So in other words, the infrastructure that we built for the last 100 years was supposed to prevent a run of the river system. And here we are 100 years later, it's happening," Weisheit said. "We should have taken care of this a long time ago. Now we're having the same discussions we had 60 years ago."

'Las Vegas is literally decades ahead'

Frankel, with the Utah Rivers Council, said there are multiple problems with the river.

  1. Taboo topics are not being discussed.
  2. There’s good players and bad players (and lots of finger-pointing).
  3. Equity questions about who gets to use water and why.

“I say this all the time inside Utah that Las Vegas is literally decades ahead of what we're seeing for water conservation programming inside Utah,” he said, but the upper basin states blame the lower basin states, and vice versa.
One of the taboo topics is the “archaic plumbing problem” inside Glen Canyon Dam.

“Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing was designed by the Bureau of Reclamation in the middle of the 20th century, in an era when they thought the river would always be in a wet hydrology,” Frankel explained. “And the problem with that is that the primary tube system used to deliver water to the lower basin and into the Grand Canyon is simply too high above the river. It's designed for basically a full reservoir and the reservoir’s disappearing, and the water is no longer going to be allowed to flow down to the lower basin to meet the minimum compact requirements.“

Will the states find a resolution? Mulroy hopes so, but worries they won’t. Kightlinger said we’ve been taking steps to address this, but climate change accelerated much quicker.

“We're so divided on so many issues in this country that we're just not capable of adapting quick enough to this. And we won't get the help from the states or the federal government to do that,” he said.

Hager agreed, “As a society we're woefully unprepared to deal with the tsunami of effects that climate change will bring and our struggles with water in the Colorado River Basin are an early indicator of that.”

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the narrative failure in the back rooms when we're not in the public,” Frankel said. “Everybody wants to talk about politics, but when we come into the foreground when the public is watching, all we talk about are facts.”

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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.
Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.
Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.
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