LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Drought restrictions along the Colorado River will be relaxed after an exceptionally wet winter helped raise the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
A Tier 1 shortage will be in effect for 2024 — an improvement over Tier 2a restrictions currently in place. The difference: Southern Nevada will gain the right to use another 4,000 acre-feet of water. That’s the equivalent of about 1.3 billion gallons — enough to supply 8,000 to 12,000 more households.
Southern Nevada is so far ahead of the curve on conservation that the extra water probably won’t be used anytime soon, information from the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) shows. Last year, Southern Nevada used 224,000 acre-feet, and is on pace to use 19% less than that for 2023 if current projections hold true.
“While shortage conditions improved slightly, Southern Nevada must remain focused on water conservation. Our community’s conservation programs, policies and practices are successfully reducing water use and managing water demands,” according to Bronson Mack, SNWA Outreach Manager.
Projections in the report show Lake Mead is expected to be at 1,064.78 feet in September — about a foot and a half higher than its current level (1,063.33 feet). Lake levels are expressed as the elevation of the surface above sea level.
Nevada receives just a small fraction of the water that flows down the river — less than 2% — and the valley’s recycling efforts return about 40% of that water back to Lake Mead. California is by far the biggest user of Colorado River, and much of it is used to grow food that the nation relies on. California will not see any cuts in its allocation next year.
Arizona will see an 18% cut from its total Colorado River water allocation, down slightly from last year. The cuts announced Tuesday do not change anything for farmers in Arizona who have already lived with them for two years now. Cities and tribes will be spared, though some have already volunteered to cut back in exchange for federal money.
An estimated 40 million people depend on the river for water.
About 90% of the Las Vegas valley’s water comes from the river.
Conservationists are quick to point out the effect of climate change on the Colorado River Basin, noting that all the water currently stored in reservoirs amounts to about a two-year supply. They cite Bureau of Reclamation data that shows storage has only increased by 11% since the start of 2023.
“Climate change gives us very little breathing room to refill reservoirs,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, said Tuesday. “Look at the history. Elevations are basically back to where we were two years ago. What’s it going to take to bring us back to the brink: not much. More pain is coming for plant life, wildlife and human life, and I have little faith that water managers will take the proper long-term course to mitigate the hardship.”
Roerink and John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers, released a joint statement that detailed several aspects of climate change that are reducing the amount of water available from the river by more than 10% of levels that are considered normal.
“My opinion hasn’t changed in 20 years: The system is going to eventually crash,” Weisheit said. “The nation’s top climate scientists predicted this 40 years ago. The train will arrive on schedule. Predictions from Reclamation about the next two years don’t mean a thing.”
The Bureau of Reclamation’s August 24-month study projects an average water year in 2024, and will continue to modify dam operations to balance the storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two biggest reservoirs in the nation.
Before the formal declaration of a water shortage just two years ago, Nevada’s share of the river was 300,000 acre-feet per year.
A law signed into law in June by Gov. Joe Lombardo authorizes SNWA to restrict residential water use if Nevada’s allocation drops to 270,000 acre-feet or less. Tuesday’s decision gives Nevada 279,000 acre-feet, so SNWA will not be able to invoke the new restriction next year.
Mack noted that it’s important for residents to abide by assigned watering days and the seasonal schedule that controls outdoor landscape watering. SNWA continues to offer a $3-per-square-foot rebate for removing grass. Find details here.