Officials from the federal government and seven states are meeting in Las Vegas this week to discuss the future of the Colorado River. The original plan was for the states to unveil an unprecedented set of drought contingency plans to adapt to continually dropping Colorado River levels. But due to protracted negotiations within California and Arizona, that isn’t happening.
Instead, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned everyone that if all drought contingency plans are not submitted by January 31, 2019, the federal government will prepare to potentially mandate cuts in 2020. How might this affect Nevada, how are we preparing for prolonged drought becoming permanent “aridification”, and how might we have to change to ensure we’re never left high and dry?
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” She continued, “Our success has one common thread: Deadlines matter.”
– Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner
At last year’s Colorado River Water Users’ Association (CRWUA) annual conference, newly confirmed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman encouraged all seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California) to present their drought contingency plans (DCP’s, or comprehensive agreements that include voluntary water cuts) by December 2018. Federal and state officials then prepared to present all seven states’ DCP’s here in Las Vegas this week.
That’s not happening. Though California may be close to finalizing their own DCP, Arizona stakeholders continue to debate what exactly will constitute their DCP, from Phoenix’s City Council at a stalemate over a water rate hike to pay for infrastructure improvements to the Arizona Legislature preparing to debate the overall DCP when they convene next month. The Arizona officials who spoke at the conference claimed all sides have made considerable progress in nearing a final agreement, a sentiment that Burman herself also expressed today.
Yet just moments earlier, Burman laid down the gauntlet to all the stragglers present in the room: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” She continued, “Our success has one common thread: Deadlines matter.”
Burman then issued this stern warning: “If by January 31, the DCP’s are not finished, the Department [of the Interior] will publish a notice in the federal register.” States must then submit recommendations, and states will have one more brief window of time to figure something out before the federal government announces its own course of action next August.
“The drought contingency plan […] makes sure more water stays at Lake Mead, but it also gives users flexibility to make sure our supplies are sufficient.”
– John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager
In June, High Country News’ Emily Benson wrote about how the word “drought” is no longer the most accurate way to describe the Southwest’s ongoing dry spell. Instead she used the word “aridification”, and Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce followed suit this week as he described the tension that’s led into this year’s CRWUA Conference. Due to that (not-so-little) thing called climate change, this frightening terminology is becoming less of a far-off “worst-case scenario” and more of a clear and present danger that must be solved right here and now.
So how does this aridification affect our already very arid expanse of Southern Nevada? According to Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger, it’s something they’ve already been preparing for: “Anyone who has lived in Southern Nevada has seen Lake Mead declining. The drought contingency plan […] makes sure more water stays at Lake Mead, but it also gives users flexibility to make sure our supplies are sufficient.”
Unlike Arizona, Nevada has already approved its DCP, as Nevada only needed the SNWA board’s approval and the Nevada Colorado River Commission‘s approval. So what exactly does this DCP entail? According to Entsminger, “For Nevada, that contingency plan requires us to leave more water at the lake at certain levels. It also gives us more tools to bring water into the lake, and take it out when we need it.”
And how exactly will Nevada make this work? For Entsminger, this is why it’s made sense to “stay water smart”. As he put it, “Our community has done a fantastic job with conservation. As a result, we have extra water to leave at the lake. This deal will allow us to leave water in the lake for future use.”
“When you live in the driest state in the union, everything is on the table […] But again, if we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.”
– John Entsminger, SNWA
As SNWA officials have noted, Nevada is only allotted 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River (in our case, Lake Mead) water annually. Depending on whether all seven states can agree upon a new set of DCP’s, or whether the federal government intervenes should certain states fail to do so, that annual allotment may drop as low as 270,000 acre-feet. Yet thus far, SNWA’s ongoing conservation programs have successfully held Nevada’s Colorado River use to about 248,000 acre-feet.
And yet, environmentalists have often pointed out how we can conserve even more water. Interestingly enough, Entsminger seemed to agree when he answered my question on how we can do better on conservation. As Entsminger noted, “We have over 5,000 acres of turf in the Valley. The only people who walk on it are the people who mow it. That’s a luxury we can no longer afford.”
So what else can we do? For Entsminger, removing more ornamental lawn grass and reaching the goals set by the conservation standards we already have on the books will make a huge difference: “I believe that removing the 5,000 acres of nonfunctional turf [grass] from the valley and enforcing the rules we have on the books will guarantee us a safe and reliable water supply for the next 50 years.”
Interestingly enough, Entsminger didn’t lead with oft debated pipeline to Eastern Nevada. Though he insisted that the pipeline and potential ocean desalination projects in Mexico are still on the table, Entsminger once more brought the issue back home. “When you live in the driest state in the union, everything is on the table,” he declared. “But again, if we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.”
“There is a lot more this community can do to manage our supply, to control our water demands, and that should be our first, second, and third resource options.”
– John Entsminger, SNWA
Even as environmentalists and rural ranching communities continue to battle SNWA on the pipeline proposal, all sides do seem to agree that more water conservation must be Nevada’s first step in securing our water future. As Entsminger explained, “We’re a world leader in urban water conservation, but this is no time for us to be resting on our laurels.” He continued, “There is a lot more this community can do to manage our supply, to control our water demands, and that should be our first, second, and third resource options.”
Just hours later, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation held a roundtable with regional and national media to address Commissioner Brenda Burman’s stern warning to Colorado River stakeholders earlier today. While speaking with media, Burman repeated her warning and then added, “DCP’s need to be on the table by August , in case we have to declare a shortage by 2020. If we don’t have DCP’s, the [U.S. Interior] Secretary will be acting by that time.”
And judging by the mood of the Caesars Palace conference center, no one seemed to want the federal government to take that kind of action, not even the federal officials present. Burman then voiced hope that all seven states will finish their DCP’s by the end of next month: “I think this basin has an incredible history of coming together. […] We’ve all come to the table. We’re close. I think the states are there.”
Yet even if all seven Colorado River states finish their DCP’s by this new deadline, there’s still the question of whether everyone is truly doing enough to acknowledge the real danger of aridification, the larger threat of climate change, and the inconvenient truth that we’ll have to change the way we approach growth and development in order to grow a more sustainable future. These are the questions we’ll continue to ask on these pages, and these are ultimately the questions that we as a society must answer realistically if we want to avoid the kind of future that leaves us high and dry.