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On the Water Front: Dripping ‘Til the Last Drop

There’s been quite a lot happening on the water front lately. On one end of the state, March delivered just enough of a miracle to keep the taps running smoothly. But on the other end of Nevada, we’re still as dry as a pile of bones in the desert.

Is there reason to fear? And what exactly are we doing to ensure that we won’t need to fear the future? Come along with me as we begin our deep dive into Nevada’s waters.

Not quite a “Miracle March”, but at least the Sierras are Nevada again
Photo by Andrew Davey

First, let’s review the good news: The Sierra Nevada Mountains were finally living up to their name (as in, snowy) last month. After a painfully dry winter, spring has been kinder to Northern Nevada. As a result, Lake Tahoe apparently has enough water to keep Reno-Sparks area residents hydrated for the next three years.

However, there’s a catch: Even after an incredibly snowy March, Mt. Rose’s snowpack still ended the month at 93% of the historic average. And Mt. Rose was incredibly lucky, as other parts of the Sierra Nevada range ended March with much less snowpack than their historic average.

This “Miracle-ish March” may have been enough to stave off the kind of drought that wreaked havoc on Northern Nevada three years ago, but the overall forecast is still looking quite dry. According to new research from the UCLA Center for Climate Science, the Sierra snowpack will be 64% smaller by the end of this century. What, if anything, are we doing to prepare for the dry times ahead?

But at Lake Mead, it’s a different story
Photo provided by Pxhere.com, and licensed under Creative Commons

While the north was saved by the snow, the south remained scorched by the sun. Even worse, water supply for much of the Colorado River watershed remains less than half of its historic average. And with the Colorado River Basin on track to have the sixth driest year on record, there’s little chance for improvement in the immediate future.

As of yesterday, Lake Mead’s water level was hovering around 1,087 feet above sea level. That’s just over 12 feet above the all-time record low set in May 2016. And according to recent research from the University of Arizona and Colorado State University, continuing climate change will likely lead to more and longer droughts, and ultimately less Upper Colorado River water reaching Lake Mead.

But all is not lost, or at least not when it comes to the Southern Nevada Water Authority‘s (SNWA) ability to suck more water out of its favorite synthetic lake. Intake No. 3, also known as “The Third Straw”, will be able to pump water from the lake bed (860 feet above sea level), which is actually 40 feet below the “deadpool” level where water would no longer pass through the turbines of Hoover Dam. Once the full project is completed, “The Third Straw” will essentially provide a lifeline for SNWA, even as California and Arizona are at greater risk of falling into a more severe water crisis.

From pipeline to gigafactory, the challenges that lie ahead
Photo made available by Wikimedia, and licensed under Creative Commons

So what other solutions might be on the table? Here’s where things get much trickier, and much more controversial. Despite the coming “Third Straw”, and despite SNWA’s success in implementing and enforcing stronger conservation standards, SNWA officials continue to demand a pipeline to the Snake Valley region along the Nevada-Utah border to divert its groundwater to Las Vegas. Despite SNWA’s immense political juice in the Las Vegas Valley, it’s had less success in convincing the State of Utah or the courts to green-light the proposed pipeline.

Also keep in mind that Snake Valley itself is also a desert that’s dealing with drought, so this pipeline would essentially move water from one troublingly dry place to another. Does that actually solve Las Vegas’ water problem, or is it just a hydrological way of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”?

Photo courtesy of Planet Labs, Inc., and licensed under Creative Commons

Meanwhile up north, the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA) came into effect in early 2016 after 27 years of negotiations (and litigation). TROA closed the chapter on a protracted conflict among Nevada, California, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and the federal government over how much Truckee River water each entity is entitled to, but a new water war may yet emerge. With Tesla building its Gigafactory at the Tahoe Regional Industrial Center (TRIC) in Storey County, and with state and local officials luring other major companies to open shop in the area, Northern Nevada has a host of new infrastructure issues to resolve, including that of its water.

What can we do now to prepare for an uncertain future?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Nevada is the driest state in the union, yet some 3 million residents call this state home. And with the American West at greater risk for further drought (thanks to climate change), we may very well be in for more fights over pipelines, factories, water rights, and water rates. Even though we may not be in emergency mode now, this is actually the best time for us to plan ahead, figure out how to balance our various interests, and prevent future problems from metastasizing into more severe crises.

That means we need to determine how much water is actually available for future growth. That means we need to determine how much further growth is truly healthy for our communities. And yes, that means we need to stop pretending that we don’t have this problem on our hands.

In the days ahead, we’ll be having this conversation right here at Nevada Today. We’ll ask the experts what’s going on, and what we can do about it. And if you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them. This isn’t something we can blithely ignore, but this is a problem that we can prevent from becoming a crisis if we’re willing to solve it.

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