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On the Water Front: A Conversation with David Kreamer on the State of Nevada’s Water

All too often, we hear from politicians and various interest groups on our ongoing water struggles. However, we don’t hear from actual experts often enough.

This time around, we spoke with quite the actual expert: UNLV Professor David Kreamer. He’s actually studied the hydrology of the Colorado River and Virgin River, so he was able to do something most others can’t: Answer our questions on the state of our water. Here’s some of our extensive discussion last week, one that touched upon the Colorado River Basin, the disturbing development at Lake Mead you probably haven’t heard about, and a fascinating twist on water desalination.

“The Colorado River has water quality and water quantity issues.”
– David Kreamer, UNLV
Photo by Andrew Davey

Professor David Kreamer researches and teaches on hydrology at UNLV’s Department of Geoscience. He’s studied the science of water near and far, including our own stretch of the Colorado River.

So what did Professor Kreamer have to say about the river? For starters he noted, “The Colorado River has water quality and water quantity issues.” Or in other words, we not only have to keep tabs on how much water is available, but also how much pollution is seeping into our water resources. While we often focus on how much water is in Lake Mead, it’s also important to check on what’s in the water to ensure it’s not harming the wildlife in the lake or the lives who depend on the lake out here on dry land.

Kreamer then provided a specific example of how water pollution could cause serious harm: “Toxic algae will shut down the water supply in Las Vegas within months. There are short-term threats and long-term threats.” He then specified one of the long-term threats, a threat that’s present in much of our everyday lives, from non-stick cookware in our kitchens to clothing in our closets: “We have long-term threats like PFAS’s that can hurt people’s health and hurt the quality of life we have here.”

“Things will likely get worse. Our population is not decreasing. We don’t know what the carrying capacity will be. We will have to conserve more.”
– David Kreamer, UNLV
Photo by Andrew Davey

While water quality is clearly a very serious issue, so is water quantity, especially considering our quantity isn’t that high. Even though Southern Nevada has already exceeded our average annual rainfall in just the first two months of 2019, the Upper Colorado River Basin’s snowpack (more specifically, where the river begins at Colorado’s Western Slope) is only at 112% of median. Yes, that does mean the snowpack is somewhat above average, but somewhat above average is far from enough to undo the many years of below average rain and snow throughout the Colorado River Basin.

After all, as Professor Kreamer pointed out, “We’ve been in a very large drought for the past two decades.” However, as we’ve discussed before, climate change is having such an effect on our region that we must now ask whether this is truly a series of temporary drought or a more permanent aridification of the American Southwest.

Photo by Andrew Davey

And it’s not just a matter of how much precipitation we experience, but how much ultimately arrives in our stretch of the Colorado River. As Kreamer noted, “Snowpack will melt earlier. It’s not just an issue of volume, but also timing.”

Kreamer continued, “Things will likely get worse. Our population is not decreasing. We don’t know what the carrying capacity will be. We will have to conserve more.”

“The managers view their job as supplying clean drinking water for their customers. The bigger question of who they take water away from [often gets ignored].”
– David Kreamer, UNLV
Photo by Andrew Davey

So what can we do? One interesting possibility Kreamer spoke about is that of mobile desalination. For all the debate and discussion over larger-scale desalination plants on the California coast, mobile desal plants allow for more immediate relief and results. But ultimately, it all comes back to how much water we use. According to Kreamer, “If we keep going with conservation, we can stave off these more drastic measures for a while.”

Of course, these conversations on conservations usually aren’t easy. When I spoke with SNWA General Manager John Entsminger last December, he sought to reassure concerns over the Colorado River and quell controversy over the proposed Eastern Nevada pipeline as he declared, “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.”

Virgin Valley Water Board from left to right Kevin Brown, manager Bo Bingham, attorney and Rich Bowler, Board Member at the Virgin Valley Water District Board Meeting: September 2018 Photo by Andrew Davey

Yet when I spoke with Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) General Manager Kevin Brown two months prior, he claimed, “We are really conservation minded already,” while explaining why VVWD thus far has no water conservation requirements in place.

Kreamer generally praised local water authorities’ ability to balance customers’ demands with our environmental reality, though he also expressed frustration over how larger questions of ecological health sometimes get swept under the rug: “The managers view their job as supplying clean drinking water for their customers. The bigger question of who they take water away from [often gets ignored].”

“There’s no real simple answer. […] You’re going to miss this spring drying up over here to argue over that developer wanting to build homes over there.”
– David Kreamer, UNLV
Photo by Andrew Davey

For instance, the water that VVWD relies upon begins its journey as groundwater that makes its way into Southwestern Utah’s Beaver Dam Wash before arriving in the Virgin River. For all the debate over how much golf courses should pay for VVWD “water shares”, it’s important to remember that there’s only so much groundwater making its way from Beaver Dam Wash into VVWD’s jurisdiction.

This brings us to perhaps the question at the core of the discussion over how both VVWD and SNWA can better manage Southern Nevada’s limited water resources: Do we need to place limits on future development? As Kreamer described this conundrum, “There’s no real simple answer. I’m a little worried that the conversation is too human centric. You’re going to miss this spring drying up over here to argue over that developer wanting to build homes over there.”

Of course, it always comes back to this: In the Mojave Desert, our water resources are far from unlimited. And with ongoing urbanization in Southern Nevada, we’re just starting to notice that our water resources aren’t invincible. Indeed, as Professor Kreamer noted, there’s no one simple answer. But if we don’t continue to ask the pertinent questions, we won’t find any of the necessary answers.

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Comments (1)

  1. I feel growth of an area should not exceed its ability to provide water, power. If you need to take water from another area there should not be any further expansion in that area.

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