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On the Water Front: We Only Have So Much Water

We need water: It’s that simple. We live in the desert: It’s that simple. The desert doesn’t have as much water resources: It’s that simple. Climate change means new and tougher water challenges: It’s that simple.

Sure, there are many complexities and complications we face when it comes to our prolonged water shortage in the American West. But when it comes to the core of our ongoing environmental crisis, the root of the problem is quite simple: We only have so much water.

“We’re a community that only uses 280,000 acre feet of water today and we still have another 130,000 acre feet if we do all this conservation. I’m feeling really good about the water resource projection in this community, and our ability to meet water resource needs long-term.” 
– Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority, at the December 2019 CRWUA Conference
water, climate change, Southern Nevada Water Authority, On the Water Front
Photo by Andrew Davey

It’s remarkable to think of how different our world felt in December 2019. I was still mostly working out in the field, and I had the opportunity to take a short break from the 2020 presidential campaign trail to check on the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) Conference at Ballys. At the time public health authorities in Wuhan, China, were just starting to identify cases of a mysterious viral disease, and I was far more afraid of losing my equipment than falling ill. And while some memories still held fresh recollections of the 2011-17 mega-drought that parched nearly the entire American West, officials at the 2019 CRWUA Conference felt more upbeat thanks to the recent breakthrough on the seven-state Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) that they expected would fend off a federal government water shortage declaration for the Colorado River. 

While Trump administration officials were doing a sort of victory lap over the DCP agreement and what seemed like a stable water outlook for the Colorado River, local water officials from the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) made clear that they were preparing for future challenges. When I spoke with SNWA Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino at CRWUA, she said, “We’re a community that only uses 280,000 acre feet of water today and we still have another 130,000 acre feet if we do all this conservation. I’m feeling really good about the water resource projection in this community, and our ability to meet water resource needs long-term.”

Lake Mead, water, climate change, On the Water Front
Photo by Andrew Davey

At the time, SNWA had prepared for the DCP cutting Nevada’s share of Colorado River water down to 350,000 acre feet. As Pellegrino noted in December 2019, “We have a 70,000 acre foot buffer if we do nothing else water conservation wise.”

At the time, we could all rest assured that we had a significant buffer to protect us. On December 13, 2019, Lake Mead’s water level sat at 1,086 feet above sea level. On June 23, 2021, Lake Mead’s water level fell below 1,070 feet above sea level. We probably still have a buffer protecting us, but that buffer isn’t looking as robust now as it did 18 months ago.

Why has our water outlook deteriorated since then? And what are we doing about it?
Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Summit, Kamala Harris, climate change
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

At CRWUA in 2019, then U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman commended the seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California) for succeeding in finalizing the DCP: “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.” Yet while then Interior Secretary David Bernhardt confirmed that the federal government would begin reviewing the 2007 Interim Guidelines that established the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply, he and Burman indicated that the Trump administration was not pursuing any larger-scale changes to Colorado River water management.

In September 2020, Reclamation released a new forecast for the Colorado River that acknowledged Lake Mead’s water level would probably drop below 1,075 by 2023, Lake Powell would reach no higher than the historically low 3,600 level for the next five years, and that the “stress test hydrology” model that anticipates more severe drought conditions showed a 19% chance of Lake Mead falling below the 1,025 level that automatically triggers another round of water cuts. Though none of the Trump administration officials on the press call to announce this forecast said the magic words, it became more obvious than ever that climate change has already begun to wreak havoc over regional water supply. In Reclamation’s more recent May 2021 forecast, they expect Lake Powell to remain below 3,600 through at least 2024, the “full hydrology” model shows Lake Mead dropping close to 1,050 by 2023 and hovering just above 1,050 through 2026, and the “stress test hydrology” model shows Lake Mead dropping below 1,050 next year and moving closer towards that 1,025 trigger point by 2026.

At the August 2020 (virtual) Lake Tahoe Summit, future Vice President Kamala Harris noted, “Make no mistake: Climate change threatens our future in so many ways.” Later in the program, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) promised, “Climate change will be a central and consistent theme in addressing our challenges in Nevada.” So what have they done since then?

At the federal level, there’s renewed talk in the U.S. Senate on some kind of “bipartisan infrastructure deal”. Yet while the new $579 billionframework for the bipartisan deal” includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, another $7.5 billion for electric buses, $66 billion for rail infrastructure, $49 billion in additional mass transit funding, $73 billion to rehabilitate and upgrade the nation’s power grids, $5 billion for “western water storage”, and $21 billion for additional environmental projects, it devotes more funding to infrastructure that supports continued fossil fuel use, it overall falls severely short of the climate action promises that President Joe Biden made in his original American Jobs Plan, and it’s further below progressive and leftist visions of a broader Green New Deal. Progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) have declared that they will not support any “infrastructure deal” that falls short on climate action, and last Thursday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Patty Murray (D-Washington) became the highest-ranking Democrats to signal that no “infrastructure deal” will be finalized and accepted until Senate Democrats pass a reconciliation bill alongside the “bipartisan deal” to address climate change and human infrastructure needs. President Joe Biden has indicated that he wants a final infrastructure package that includes both bills, so now he has to prove that this is a strategy that can actually work.

But really, how are we trying to fix our water problems?
Nevada Legislature
Photo by Andrew Davey

While we’re still awaiting further climate action at the federal level, we saw a bit more action during the Nevada Legislature’s 81st Session this past spring. Earlier this month Sisolak signed into law SB 448, which includes a $100 million investment in electric vehicle charging stations, new tax incentives for renewable energy storage, expansion of rooftop solar opportunities for commercial and multi-family residential complexes, and the overall alignment of state energy policies with NV Energy’s Greenlink Nevada project

Getting more water specific, Sisolak also signed into law AB 356 to allow SNWA to prohibit nonfunctional turf, or ornamental lawn grass in areas like road medians, HOA community boundaries, and business park spaces where people can’t really use it. In addition, Sisolak signed AB 333 to allow for more rural flood control and stormwater collection projects, and AJR 3 to endorse Biden’s national goal of 30% of America’s lands and waters protected by 2030. And just like we saw in 2019, legislation that seemed to fly too close to SNWA’s now-shelved Eastern Nevada Pipeline project (such as SJR 1 and SB 155) went nowhere fast. 

When it came to possibly being more proactive in water solutions, we didn’t see any movement on larger matters of urban planning and suburban/exurban sprawl. Yet while federal legislation is in the works on Southern Nevada’s future development, this legislation that was meant to assuage concerns about Clark County’s original lands bill proposal is instead fueling renewed debate over the future of development and “growth” in Southern Nevada.

What the hell is going on in St. George?

Picture it: State and local authorities propose a pipeline to divert Colorado River water and fuel new exurban development. Environmentalists raise hell in railing against the proposed pipeline, and national media descend upon the region to cover the new battle in “The Western Water War”. But this time, there’s a twist: SNWA has joined forces with other regional water agencies and environmentalists against the pipeline project. Say what?

The Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) and the State of Utah are proposing a 140 mile long underground pipeline to divert Colorado River water from Lake Powell to St. George. Utah and WCWCD officials insist that they’re just seeking to exercise their full legal water rights under the “Law of the River“, and that the St. George region needs the additional water to accommodate future growth and development. Opponents, including SNWA and other Colorado River regional water partners, see Utah’s claims as mere excuses to undermine the 2019 DCP and break their promises on water conservation. When the Trump administration agreed to Utah’s request for an expedited approval process for the Lake Powell Pipeline last September, the other six Colorado River Basin states threatened a lawsuit. 

But when threatened with the potential of the “Law of the River” being repealed and replaced by whatever a majority of U.S. Supreme Court Justices decide, Utah backed off its earlier demand for expedited approval. And following Biden’s inauguration and the confirmation of current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, federal approval of the Lake Powell Pipeline project no longer appears to be the “slam dunk” that it could have been under Trump’s watch. However the State of Utah continues to advocate for the Lake Powell Pipeline, and the tenuous peace that came online with the 2019 DCP agreement has since deteriorated into a sort of “cold water war” that may yet turn into a much hotter conflict. 

Is the “Law of the River” the best law of the land, or are we putting too much faith in “paper water”?

In the water policy world, experts sometimes use a term to describe regulatory agencies’ awkward moves that often make no sense to scientists and everyday people who see how much water our lakes and rivers actually have. As the California Water Impact Network described it, “Water that exists as water rights claims in legal documents but not in the real world is known as ‘paper water’. There is far more water promised ‘on paper’ to stakeholders than there is in [western] water ways.”

The Colorado River’s “Law of the River” has been built on the foundation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, when the other Colorado River Basin states’ worries over the then fast-growing State of California claiming more water led to the rush to negotiate and enact the Compact. The seven states and the federal government (with no Native American tribal communities even invited to participate in those negotiations) proceeded to allocate Colorado River water based on a few unusually wet years, as opposed to the lower and more realistic historic baseline water levels. In essence, the 1922 Colorado River Compact kicked off the development of the “Law of the River” on “paper water” that always surfaces in legal contracts, but doesn’t always flow in real life. 

water, climate change, On the Water Front, Lake Mead

Even as environmental scientists began to better understand climate change, including how climate change likely fuels a more permanent state of mega-drought that amounts to the aridification of the American West, the “Law of the River” feels even more detached from our environmental reality than ever before. Upper Basin states are frustrated that they’ve had to guarantee water for Lake Powell to send to Lower Basin states before they can fully exercise their legal water rights. Lower Basin states are incensed that they’ve been asked most often to “conserve our limited water resources” while Upper Basin states seemingly dragged their feet on water conservation. 

Yet even in 1922, 7.5 million acre-feet per year was never a reality-based goal for water appropriation for either side of Lees Ferry. Even with the ongoing threats of lawsuits that might result in the U.S. Supreme Court (again) wading into these troubled waters, the “Law of Mother Nature” ultimately trumps the “Law of the River” by the simple fact that neither judges nor elected officials nor appointed “water czars” can control precipitation and snowmelt anywhere in the Colorado River Basin.

For decades, Southern Nevada has operated under the mantra of “growth begets growth”. How much more growth can we truly afford?
Catherine Cortez Masto, Violence Against Women Act, Savanna's Act, Not Invisible Act, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Indigenous Women, civil rights, women's rights, Native American resilience, #MeToo
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

In April 2020, we took notice of U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) stepping in to try to resolve the growing dispute between Clark County and environmentalists over Clark County’s lands bill proposal that originally called for over 296,000 acres of new development beyond the Las Vegas Valley. On March 3, 2021, Cortez Masto and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) introduced the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act that only opens up a net 30,633 acres of current federal public lands to new private development while simultaneously expanding Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by 51,000 acres, providing full wilderness designation to over 1.3 million acres of Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and setting aside an overall grand total of 2 million acres of federal public lands in Clark County “for habitat conservation, outdoor recreation, and cultural and landscape preservation”. With all of Nevada’s Members of Congress, Governor Steve Sisolak (D), the full Clark County Commission, and environmental advocacy groups like Nevada Conservation League and Battle Born Progress all in support, did Cortez Masto secure a deal that everyone can live with?

Though some environmentalists decided to green-light Cortez Masto’s revision of the Clark County lands bill thanks to her decision to pare back new lands for development and bump up the amount of permanently protected public lands, other environmentalists have been questioning the wisdom of even opening up another roughly 30,000 acres of land to new exurban sprawl when Southern Nevada faces a more severe water crunch than ever before. 

Dina Titus
Rep. Dina Titus
Photo by Andrew Davey

When we plug in SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino’s 2019 assessment that Clark County was using about 280,000 acre feet of water with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate of Clark County’s population at 2,266,715, we can estimate that every acre foot of our water was sustaining about eight people. Under this model, the extra 70,000 acre feet of “buffer water” that Pellegrino identified in 2019 can sustain an additional 566,678 people worth of population growth. If we use the more generous estimate of 130,000 acre feet of “buffer water” that Pellegrino indicated thanks to Sisolak signing AB 356 into law and SNWA cracking down harder than ever on non-functional turf and other forms of water waste, this model suggests that we can sustain about ten people per acre foot of available water, and that we can afford another 1,339,422 people worth of population growth.

Cortez Masto’s and Titus’ Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act factors in UNLV’s CBER 2019 forecast that Clark County will add about 820,000 new residents by 2060 and cites it as reason to provide just over 30,000 acres of land for new development. Under the model that factors in current water use and the UNLV CBER population growth forecast, we will have used up all our remaining “buffer water” before 2040. Under the model that factors in the more aggressive water conservation envisioned by SNWA, we can handle another 820,000 new residents by 2060, but we will only have just north of 50,000 acre feet worth of “buffer water” left in an environment where prolonged drought essentially becomes the new normal. And if we run into a worse-case scenario of additional cuts to our water supply in the future, we’ll find out just how much of that remaining 50,000 acre feet of “buffer water” we truly have left.

We can’t control how much water we receive, but we can control how much water we use.
COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, health care, water, climate change, On the Water Front
Photo by Andrew Davey

None of this is meant to encourage the kinds of apocalyptic fever dreams that some online shitposters love to comment on any social media post linking to articles covering the American West’s ongoing water crunch: fever dreams that often involve Las Vegas and Phoenix dying of thirst, cold “water wars” turning hot, and the need for mass migration of either water or people as America devolves into some Mad Max-esque hellscape. That really doesn’t have to be our future reality. Yet with that being said, we do need to recognize that we’re not doing enough here and now to prepare for the future that’s quickly becoming our new reality.

We’ve already endured three decades’ worth of draining fights over the proposed Eastern Nevada Pipeline that’s now indefinitely shelved. We’re facing new fights over a proposed pipeline project in Utah, and over other Basin states demanding Colorado River water that they claim they’re entitled to. And with fascist militants like Ammon Bundy now threatening violence to illegally transfer water that they claim they’re somehow entitled to, our water shortage may yet become far more dangerous than merely the risk of more lawsuits.

We only have so much water. It’s such a simple fact, yet it’s been obfuscated for far too long by overly complicated political maneuvering. It’s long past time we let go of the unnecessary complications and just face the simple truth already. 

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