Dealing with drought Las Vegas style

By C.J. Barbre

After the Deep Fire in early August damaged the flume that carries Springville's water to the district's treatment plant, residents were asked to practice some conservation measures.

The approximately 3,000 ecologically conscious citizens reduced water usage by 175,000 gallons per day according to the Springville Public Utility District (SPUD). That is a reduction from 525,000 to 350,000 gallons per day for the foothill community.

Conservation should be the first line of defense against water shortages, especially in drought years. California is in its fifth year of drought and fire warnings are at their Red Flag highest.

There has been a lot of talk about water storage, and some action. But that is contingent on having water to store.

At an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) seminar in Las Vegas on Sept. 10-12, one of the workshops was titled "Urban sprawl: Investigating land and water issues." Las Vegas is the driest urban area in the United States and tripled in size from 1973-1996.

The city gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the Colorado River via Lake Mead. This is only 330,000 acre feet of water a year, compared to 4.4 million acre feet for California. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, enough water for a family of four for a year. The remainder comes from a deep groundwater aquifer beneath the Las Vegas valley, used primarily during summer months to meet peak demand.

In 1994 fast-growing Las Vegas decided to double its water treatment facilities - that is to build a second facility as large as, and right next to the first. They named the project that later came to be called "a $3 billion make-work boondoggle" the Second Straw. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority the project was undertaken because the "existing system would not have delivered our entitlement."

Dr. Larry Paulsen, who has a master's in ecology and a doctorate in the science of lakes, warned that the area was essentially out of Colorado River water. He came out strongly against the Second Straw. "The problem is, the water authority has not been able to secure any additional water for that project," Paulsen said in a February 2002 KVBC-Las Vegas television interview with reporter Darcy Spears.

In 2000 and 2001 Las Vegas used more water than was allowed in its entitlement according to Bureau of Reclamation records. And it was being handled quite well through their current system. Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said there was a plan to start banking Arizona water, a program where Arizona agrees to store extra water for Nevada's future needs . . . if they have a surplus. But Dr. Paulsen countered that Arizona was using its full entitlement too, so there was no unused water. Nevada was exploring other water purchases such as from Coyote Springs 50 miles north of Las Vegas, although transportation issues had not been addressed - they could have built the Second Straw a little further out. After word got out, enviromentalists got up in arms and a five-year study was mandated before any water could be sold, if it could at all.

The Las Vegas Water Authority's last ditch plan was to "finesse the Law of the [Colorado] River and the discussions with the users."

As a measure of its importance and stature, the 1922 Colorado River compact became the keystone to the "Law of the River." The Law of the River is a composite of state and federal laws and regulations, court decisions, and international treaties made over time for the purpose of managing the Colorado River.

The other users are six basin states including California, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Arizona who, along with Nevada, fought for years over the Colorado River compact. Then Arizona refused to ratify it and fought major battles all the way to the Supreme Court. "Finesse" hasn't worked historically.

The Las Vegas Water Authority concluded that the real last ditch solution would be to start desalinating ocean water to meet the city's needs. That sounds like an even more serious transportation issue - like it would be simpler to move Las Vegas to the ocean.

The Las Vegas Review Journal, a local newspaper, decided to find out who were the county's 100 top water users which they did simply by getting access to water bills over the course of 2002 in millions of gallons used. They thought it would be golf courses, and indeed, a quarter of the list was golf courses. (Nobody asked whether golf courses were vital in the desert.) The biggest user was the Clark County School District, followed by six golf courses under two accounts, Lake Las Vegas and Sun City Community Association, followed by the Nellis Air Force Base.

Keith Rogers, who wrote the story, said solutions that developed as a result of their coverage included the water district offering a rebate for people to take out lawns or turf. The city passed ordinances disallowing turf in new housing developments. Instead they were required to do xeriscaping - natural landscaping that requires little to no watering beyond what nature provides.

Also the big water users would have to pay surcharges. As a result golf course owners narrowed their fairways. Schools decided they needed less turf. Had Lake Mead reached emergency drought conditions it would have kicked in more surcharges. (Has anyone noticed Lake Success lately. It's about empty.)

"Awareness about our water consumption has lead to a new mindset on conservation," Rogers said about Las Vegas.

Awareness about Springville's potential water shortages made a big difference. A new mindset may well be required in reference to the Aug. 27 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton requiring water to be released from Friant Dam into the San Joaquin River to restore fish habitat. Proponents for restoring the river say everyone will benefit - downstream farmers, fish and 20 million drinking water users.

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