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Here is how Southern Nevada is dealing with growth and the water issue

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Posted at 1:42 PM, Oct 29, 2021

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — 13 Action News is launching a newsroom-wide initiative called Meadows to Metropolis examining all the impacts of our explosive growth.

It all starts with water. Nothing is more critical.

When 2022 rings in, the federal water shortage declaration will cut our supply by about 7 billion gallons.

RELATED: Meadows to Metropolis, the story of Las Vegas

13 Investigates examines how we got here and finds out how officials are planning for our future.

Springs Preserve is considered by many to be the birthplace of Las Vegas. Early settlers discovered springs here in the middle of the desert, providing the most basic element — water — coming from runoff from the Spring Mountains and Mt. Charleston. But as we would soon realize, the water from the springs and the meadow that was Las Vegas would soon not be enough to sustain a bustling metropolis.

"At one time, this was Big Spring. This is what was the origin of Las Vegas if you will," said John Hiatt, who serves on a Citizens' Advisory Board for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. For nearly three decades, he's worked to protect open spaces in Southern Nevada.

Approximately 4,000 gallons of water per minute flowed from Big Spring downhill and out to the north of what is now downtown Las Vegas, Hiatt explained.

"Without this source of water, Las Vegas would not be. Would not exist," he said.

Big Spring was one of many nearby springs tapped by early settlers at a time when water in Las Vegas was plentiful. So plentiful, Hiatt said, that "water would actually spurt up out of the ground, sometimes as much as 20 feet high."

But that would not last.

RELATED: Draining Las Vegas: Here is who's using the most water in the valley

"As the population grew and grew and grew, we used more and more water," Hiatt said. "So by the 1920s, we no longer had water coming out of it, spurting out of the ground here. We had to start pumping, and that just continued."

It took so much pumping, the water table dropped.

Then, valley residents discovered and tapped into another source of water hundreds of miles away: the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The Colorado River Compact divvied up water among Nevada and six other states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Mexico would eventually get a cut, too.

Based on an estimated annual flow of 17.5 million acre-feet, that's about 5.7 trillion gallons of water every year.

The Colorado River Compact became the basis for what is referred to as the "Law of the River." Signed in Sante Fe, New Mexico in November of 1922, it is a rather simple, four-page document considering it impacts more than 40 million people who depend on the river — many who live in the arid Southwest, including the Mojave Desert.

In May of 1932, the construction of the Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, the reservoir holding Nevada's yearly water share: 300,000 acre-feet or 97 billion gallons.

But by the 1950s, when our population was still less than 100,000, there were already concerns about that 17.5 million-acre allotment.

"So that number, 17-and-a-half million, really came about from data collected over a relatively short period of time, a decade. And looking in retrospect, that was a very high-flow period of time," Hiatt said.

Darcy Spears digs deeper in the Daily Debrief:

Daily Debrief: How Las Vegas area officials are planning for looming water shortage

John Entsminger is general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the cooperative responsible for managing our valley's water.

We tackled the issue head-on with him.

The buzzword around water right now seems to be "uncertainty."

Entsminger: "I think when people talk about uncertainty, the main thing they're looking at is the recent hydrology on the Colorado River."

Recent hydrology doesn't match up well with water allocations from nearly 100 years ago.

"Well, I would say prudent water managers in the 21st century are not going to rely upon the amount of water the river gave us in the 20th century," says Entsminger. "We know we're going to have less water moving forward than what was divvied up in 1922."

The Colorado River Compact doesn't specify how much each of the seven states is allocated. Instead, it assigns 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin states; Arizona, California and Nevada. And 7.5 million acre-feet to the Upper Basin states; Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. (Some sections of New Mexico and Utah are considered Lower Basin where drainage from the Colorado River System comes from waters diverted from below Lee Ferry.) It's up to the states within the two Basins to water how much water is then delivered to each state.

A 1944 treaty entitles Mexico to 1.5 million acre-feet each year.

The total allocation adds up to 16.5 million acre-feet leaving a buffer of only 1 million acre-feet based on that original estimate of 17.5 million acre-feet.

But many agree there's actually a lot less water in the river than what is calculated on paper.

"The average flow of the river in the last twenty years is 12.3 million acre-feet and the climate scientists are telling us we need to prepare for a future with even less," says Entsminger.

The Law of the River became a decades-long complicated fiasco involving costly litigation and political wrangling, in large part, due to the difference between water that is actually in the river versus water on paper.

Finally, in 2007 the Colorado River Interim Guidelines were signed by the seven states depending on the river.

According to a press release, then U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne addressed delegates from the Basin States here in Las Vegas on December 13, 2007, "As the Colorado River navigates a 1,500-mile journey down mountains through canyons and across desert landscapes, you have navigated the shoals of history. You have steered around cataracts and sharp boulders of litigation and acrimony. You have found the serene waters of partnership and cooperation."

MORE FROM 'MEADOWS TO METROPOLIS':

"The challenges of the 21st century are right in front of us," says Entsminger. "And in order to meet those, we need to build upon the successes that the seven states and the country of Mexico have achieved over the last 25 years. And I believe that there is the cooperative spirit within the Colorado River Basin to be successful in meeting these challenges."

In 2019, the Basin states and Mexico agreed to Drought Contingency Plans deciding how much water would be cut to each state based on certain criteria.

"We've agreed in advance how much water. Arizona, California and Nevada will not have access to in these dry conditions, rather than resorting to the litigation model of the 20th century," says Entsminger.

That is the basis for the Federal water shortage declaration issued earlier this year triggering water cuts in 2022.

Entsminger says conservation efforts, like changing how we landscape, address a basic problem of local demand.

"Las Vegas has been the most successful urban water conservation metropolitan area, I would say, in the world. We've added over 800,000 new residents to this valley since 2002 and actually reduced our water usage by 23 percent."

Resulting in Nevada using less than our allotted 300,000-acre-feet from Lake Mead. We'll have to keep doing that.

"The shortage declaration takes that legal allocation down to 279,000 acre-feet," says Entsminger. "But last year we used about 255,000 acre-feet, so we actually had extra water. And what the shortage declaration means for Southern Nevada is we have less extra water. Not that we have to actually use less water than we used last year."

But future population predictions from UNLV show Clark County will grow by about 40,000 to 50,000 people every year for the foreseeable future, with the total population increasing from 2,376,683 to over 3 million in 2035.

"The best way to make sure you have enough water is to make sure you have control over how much water you're using," says Entsminger.

Today our Gallons Per Capita per Day is about 112 per person but could be more as temperatures rise due to climate change.

"So in order to combat that and get to our goal of 105 GPCD by 2035," says Entsminger, "we really need to double down on enforcement and complying with the existing rules for water waste. And we need to continue to take out all of that non-functional turf."

The less water we use outdoors, the better we can manage shortage conditions. As for those ultra-high-end homes using nearly 10 million gallons or more a year, there's talk of adding a luxury tier to their water bill.

"Simply put, if you're going to use that much water in the Mojave Desert, there should be a premium on it," says Entsminger.

It's fair to point out, the highest single-family residential users account for only a small percentage of our total water use.

So will current conservation efforts be enough to sustain growth amid so much uncertainty?

"We don't know exactly what's going to happen," says Hiatt. "You know, as Yogi Berra said, 'It's really hard to make predictions, especially about the future.'"

Using that wisdom, the Water Authority is planning for the next 50 years based on a range of scenarios including the worst.

"And make sure that our water resource portfolio was resilient enough to meet our community's needs, even in the face of worst-case hydrology and higher levels of population growth," says Entsminger.

On the demand side, they're looking at one major source of consumption; the evaporative cooling systems used in large buildings such as the properties on the Strip.

"We know there are data centers down in Phoenix that use dry cooling with almost a zero water footprint," Entsminger explains. "So we're looking at that sort of technology and talking to our member agencies about how that could be translated into some of our building codes so that we tighten up water usage on the evaporative cooling front as well as the outdoor irrigation front."

On the supply side, there's a major project in the works with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET).

"MET is in the process of building a $4 billion facility that will reuse all of the wastewater in Southern California, says Entsminger. "And our board has agreed to contribute up to $750 million towards the capital cost of that project in return for them, MET, leaving a share of Colorado River Water in Lake Mead for our use."

Several viewers raised the question of desalination, a process where seawater is converted to usable water, as a supply source for California with the idea that California would then need less water from the Colorado River.

"To do desalination, you have to find something to do with thousands, hundreds of thousands of tons of salt every year," says Entsminger. "People don't like you to discharge that into the ocean. They don't like you to put it into a landfill."

The end cost of desalination is still extremely high. Household customers currently pay about $5.00 per 1000 gallons. Desalinated water is estimated to cost between $16.00 and $25.00 per 1000 gallons.

For years now, folks have been asking if it's time to restrict growth in the valley -- stop issuing building permits, at least temporarily, like a couple of small towns are doing in Utah. Entsminger says that's up to the community and elected officials to decide.

So, is it fair to say, "Hey Las Vegas, we got this. No worries!"?

"Well, I would say we have the tools to have this. But to simply say, 'we have this,' whether or not we continue on our conservation journey or not, would not be a fair message to the community," says Entsminger. "There is hard work to be done. We cannot rest on the laurels of our conservation successes over the last 20 years, but we only don't have this, if we choose not to have this."

Our series, “Las Vegas: Meadows to Metropolis,” looks to answer that question. Tune in to 13 Action News at 6 p.m. throughout the month of November for in-depth reporting on how rapid growth impacts Las Vegans.