I-Team: New outlook for Nevada’s water future

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Drought news has been grim in recent months as western states come to grips with water restrictions and predictions of a drier future.

Amazingly, Nevada – the driest state in the country and the state that gets the least amount of water from the Colorado River – is in the best position.

Water officials recently made the startling announcement that southern Nevada is in pretty good shape when it comes to water – now and for the next 50 years.

Public service announcements featuring the little old lady with the deadly kick still rub some viewers the wrong way, but that award winning campaign played a major role in transforming Nevada’s long-term water picture.

“The community has reduced our consumptive use of water by 33 percent so far in the 21st century, and it is because of those reductions that we can say we have enough water both for us and for our future population and for foreseeable growth here in the valley,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger.

Come again? We’re not out of water? What about all of those national news stories about how the west is bone dry, all those pictures of empty reservoirs, baked soil and farms withering like raisins in the sun?

It is jarring to hear the boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority say things contrary to the doom and gloom stories that rolled out of the agency for so many years.

“Am I supposed to sit here and say, ‘Oh well, whatever cards Mother Nature deals me, I’m simply going to accept, and the fate of two million people doesn’t matter to me? They’re just going to have to live with whatever Mother Nature decides to dole out?” former SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy said in 2007.

The previous water czar employed passion and theatrics in painting the worst possible picture of Nevada’s water future. Critics say she did so, in part, because the darker the scenario, the more the public might support a 300 mile-long, $15 billion system of pumps and pipelines to suck massive amounts of groundwater from under rural Nevada.

Scientists say the plan would create a dead zone over a vast swath of the state.

Prior to the dry spell, which first hit Nevada in 1999, water managers largely ignored the reality that Las Vegas sits in the driest desert in North America and that, historically, drought is the norm, not the exception.

Admitting that reality might have slowed the profits generated by decades of runaway growth.

“The SNWA had to be drug kicking and screaming into drought planning and the conservation into anything other than let the growth happen as fast as it wants. We will make sure there is enough water,” said Bob Fulkerson with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

The water authority’s previous position was that water conservation wouldn’t be enough. The view these days is a lot less gloomy. SNWA staff studied various scenarios based on water levels in the river, climate change and a resumption of growth in the valley.

“Under any scenario we can plan for, we have a solid water supply portfolio for the next 50 years,” Entsminger said.

After 50 years, Entsminger predicts we will need additional supplies. The rural water grab plan has not been taken off the table. Despite multiple defeats in court, SNWA is still pursuing necessary permits in case the project is ever green-lighted, but it is no longer on the front burner.

Another former taboo is now being discussed: desalinization plants to turn ocean water into fresh water. The I-Team pestered the water authority for 10 years about desalting plants and documented a successful pilot program in Yuma, Arizona. The water authority repeatedly told the I-Team desalting plants were not a realistic option.

Now, Entsminger not only says it will be part of our water future, he personally negotiated an agreement with Mexico to pave the way for it someday.

“Desalinated water is part of our future portfolio. It is part of the future water supply of the western United States. We just haven’t gotten to a need and price point yet where it is becoming a reality,” he said.

As the Las Vegas growth machine starts to rev up once again, the SNWA and its critics will be watching to make sure the wasteful mistakes and exaggerations of the past are not repeated.

Restrictions on turf along with the lawn rebate program and conservation education continue to have an impact. Entsminger says personal water use in the valley dropped seven gallons per person in the last 12 months.

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