In case you haven’t noticed, Nevada is the driest state in the nation. Both of our major metropolitan areas receive less than 10 inches of rain per year. Our rural communities welcome tourists to stay and play while farmers and ranchers grow the food we all eat. And yet, just three years ago much of the American West was stuck in a severe drought that threatened this entire balance.
Like a Deus ex machina, recent rains have allowed Nevada to place any difficult water conversations back on the back burner. But with the rain going away, now might be a good time for us to reach for that back burner and bring the water issue back to the forefront.
Don’t think that “it can’t happen here”
It’s easy to look at other locales, such as Cape Town, South Africa, and reassure ourselves that such a disaster “can’t happen here”. Let’s not kid ourselves. After all, this is how the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe appeared in April 2015. Just three years ago, the snowpack was so low that we often saw next to none during that winter season.
But hey, at least Tahoe was still a lake. Going north on the 580, another Northern Nevada lake had nearly vanished.
Yes, this was Washoe Lake around the same time. Though the lake has since reappeared, Sierra Nevada snowpack continues to struggle to reach its historic average. And down south, Lake Mead remains dangerously close to historic lows. As much as we’d rather not think about it, it’s time for us to acknowledge that it actually is happening here… And that it might not be a bad idea to think aloud about possible solutions.
“Our biggest challenge is aligning our water policies with the proper priorities of our state.”
– Kimberly Padilla-Estrada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN)
I recently had a chance to speak with some local environmentalists about the ongoing challenges of drought and water resource management. According to PLAN environmental justice fellow Kimberly Padilla-Estrada, we need to rethink our priorities: “Our biggest challenge is aligning our water policies with the proper priorities of our state.”
How do we do that? For Padilla-Estrada, “[S]ince we’re already the most arid state in the nation, we should make a habit of conservation.”
Indeed, Southern Nevada already has been conserving water for the past 25 years. And yet, Las Vegas still uses more water per capita than nearly every other major city in the nation, so there’s plenty more room for improvement. So how exactly can we improve?
“We shouldn’t force sacrifices on just one corner of our state. […] We shouldn’t leave out so many Nevadans.”
– Erika Castro, PLAN
PLAN senior organizer Erika Castro chimed in, called on everyone to look at the big picture: “We need to look at new and innovative ways for us to be at the forefront […] We must look at green solutions, sustainable solutions.”
Castro also addressed the ongoing debate of whether or not it’s appropriate for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to construct a pipeline to the Snake Valley to divert water from there to Las Vegas. According to Castro, “We shouldn’t force sacrifices on just one corner of our state. We are looking at the state as a whole. We shouldn’t leave out so many Nevadans.”
Padilla-Estrada then mentioned specific actions, such as xeriscaping our yards and using grey water to maintain golf courses, that can actually make a difference. And then, Padilla mentioned the biggest action Vegas can take: “It’s a constant struggle, but it’s ultimately a matter of controlling our growth.” Castro agreed: “It’s a conversation we need to have with the […] people who are living here.”
“People are encouraged to let the tap run, just so they can keep the water rights.”
– Kimberly Padilla-Estrada, PLAN
It’s not just about urban water use. Kimberly Padilla-Estrada pointed out how state policies, such as “Use It or Lose It”, encourage water waste in rural communities: “The water allocated must be used, or else that water right must be taken away. People are encouraged to let the tap run, just so they can keep the water rights.”
Erika Castro then added, “Farmers and ranchers are being forced to waste water to keep their rights. Mining companies, however, can use ‘temporary’ water permits to take as much water as they want.” What Castro is referring to is the state water authority’s practice of issuing 10-15 year “temporary” water permits to mining companies to use as part of their mining operations. For Castro, it’s a prime example of the state favoring powerful corporate interests over the needs of its people: “The mining companies are allowed to have so much power over our lands and our waters because of the money they have.”
Over the years, critics have asked whether Nevada can truly afford to allow these mining operations to use so much of our water. Castro pointed out how that water is used and what comes of it: “67% of gold is used for jewelry. What’s more valuable, jewelry or water for life?”
“Take a drive outside Las Vegas. Have a conversation with rural communities. We are one state. This affects us all.”
– Kimberly Padilla-Estrada, PLAN
So where does the answer lie? How do we manage our precious, yet limited, water resources? PLAN’s Kimberly Padilla-Estrada and Erika Castro are among the Nevadans calling for a comprehensive solution that takes into account rural livelihoods, urban needs, and environmental justice.
Padilla-Estrada closed her argument with a reminder of how climate change and drought threaten the entire state, north and south, urban and rural: “What is happening right now in rural Nevada, that is something that can happen to Las Vegas.”
She also had this piece of advice for anyone, particularly anyone in the urban south, who’s still not convinced that Nevada needs a comprehensive and equitable water solution: “Take a drive outside Las Vegas. Have a conversation with rural communities. We are one state. This affects us all.”
Stay tuned for Part 3, when we’ll dig deeper into the fight for Snake Valley’s water and speak with a local expert and environmental justice advocate about what lies next “on the water front”.