LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — An uproar over a bill requiring residents with septic systems to connect to municipal sewer systems is causing a major pivot in the effort to conserve water in Southern Nevada.

An amendment is changing a requirement into an option. That’s the latest move to accommodate residents who repeatedly told lawmakers they just couldn’t afford to pay for the conversions themselves. Not 50%. Not 20%. Not 15%.

Assembly Bill 220 (AB220) was heard Tuesday by the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The current language in the bill gives residents the chance to take advantage of an offer to cover 100% of the costs of connecting to a municipal sewer system as long as funds are available. The effort now is to help people who are on city water but using a septic tank make the complete conversion and connect to the sewer system.

Colby Pellegrino, Deputy General Manager of Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said there is a long list of residents who want to connect to the sewer system.

Colby Pellegrino, Deputy General Manager of Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The installation of new septic systems, however, would be prohibited. That will prevent water waste, Pellegrino said. Water that travels through the sewer system is recycled and ends up back in Lake Mead after extensive treatment. Septic tanks remove water from the system.

The change does more than relieve concerns about mandated costs — it shifts attention to an important part of AB220 that was being overshadowed by the loud argument over paying for sewer conversions.

‘Aggressive’ change

“We need to be bold, and we need to be a bit aggressive,” according to Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsors. “The last section of this bill authorizes, in these emergency situations with the approval of a board made up of elected officials, to take actions to protect the core water uses of our community.”

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), sponsor of AB220.

An abundance of water flowing into Lake Mead this year after snowpack at 160% of normal in the Upper Colorado River Basin takes some pressure off this year, but the lake will only fill to 26% of capacity. That’s not enough to end the federal declaration of a water shortage.

Residential water use

The long-term answer is to reduce water usage. And Southern Nevada continues to make great progress. Pellegrino said water use dropped to 224,000 acre-feet last year, when Nevada’s allocation was 300,000 acre-feet.

This year, Nevada’s allocation has dropped again, capped at 270,000 acre-feet under current drought restrictions. But the community is on track to cut use to about 210,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre in a foot of water — 325,851 gallons.

But the concern remains. Federal water managers could cut Nevada’s water allocation by half if the drought deepens.

“This is not about singling out and punishing residential users,” Watts said. “If we end up in this scenario, we’re going to be asking everyone to tighten their belts to make sure that the critical uses for our community are protected.”

Emergency tool

AB220 wouldn’t immediately slash how much water residents are allowed to use. Pellegrino said it’s simply about getting the tools to curtail water use when there’s an emergency.

“The intent is an emergency management nature, So if we had to reduce our use below our existing use or reduce our use in a very rapid fashion, that it’s a tool to use in our toolbox temporarily, not a permanent management strategy,” she said.

“We know that the top 20% of our water users in the single-family sector use over 35% of our water use for that sector,” Pellegrino said. “We know over 50% of our population gets by with less than half of what we’re proposing on a day-to-day basis.”

“Reducing water demands is essential for Southern Nevadans,” Pellegrino said.

Andy Belanger of SNWA said that’s already happening for many of those top water users. He credited an excessive use charge for causing changes in water use by about half of the top 6% of residential customers.

Sadly, we’ve heard from some people who’ve argued that they must be allowed to use more water simply because they have a larger lot, that their situation is unique, and that they should be treated differently during a water crisis. We may actually hear from some of those people today. And I hope we don’t, because the scenario in which we would need to employ such a limitation would be when our allocation of the Colorado River is significantly impaired, either by a worsening drought or federal action. In that circumstance I can’t imagine people would argue that their landscaping matters more than their neighbors.

Andy Belanger, SNWA

How would SNWA go about limiting water? Pellegrino said it would probably be done by way of a flow-limiting device in the water line.

Support and opposition

“We’ve lost 20% of the river since the year 2000. We’re likely to lose 20% more in the coming decades. That’s what the top scientists on the river are saying,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said in support of the bill. “So what are we doing to prepare right now? I think AB220 is the ultimate way that we prepare. And we have an obligation to do so.”

Government officials, agencies and organizations showed up to testify in support, including Clark County, the City of Henderson, the City of North Las Vegas, the Nature Conservancy, Nevada Realtors and the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m not in love my septic tank,” Yvette Williams said during testimony from the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. “I’m very excited about being able to connect to the public sewage, however, I am still very much concerned about the waiver process and what those waivers will be.” She said she previously testified against the bill, but the amendment has gained her support. Williams thanked Sen. Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) for crafting the amendment on septic tank conversions.

The Nevada Republican Party testified against the bill. “What a deal. California uses all the water, but Nevada gets all the restrictions,” said Alida Benson, executive director. She described AB220 as an attack on private property rights, but she said the party supports Nguyen’s amendment. “Our top 10 highest residential water users use more water in a month than the average household uses in a year. Perhaps they should start by reducing their water usage,” she said.

AB220 has been passed in the Assembly, but requires Senate approval before advancing to Gov. Joe Lombardo’s desk, where it would become law if he signs it.