Nevada Senator's bill bets big on Vegas development as Lake Mead dries up

Nevada Senator's bill bets big on Vegas development as Lake Mead dries up
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Want to understand the Colorado River’s rapid decline over the past two decades? Here’s an easy visual: The high-water mark staining the stone at Lake Mead, the West’s largest reservoir.

Known as the bathtub ring, this mark now towers nearly 150 feet above current water levels.  The reservoir was last at full capacity in 1983.

Yet, some Nevada politicians are wagering they can continue using Lake Mead as a limitless source to develop the Mojave Desert into another Los Angeles. That is at least foolish –– if not negligent.

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Nevada’s congressional delegation –– led by Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoOvernight Energy: Senate panel advances controversial public lands nominee | Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan | NJ requiring public water systems to replace lead pipes in 10 years Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (D-Nev.) –– is pushing legislation to sell off 42,000 acres of public lands to spur new development in the town that shadows over Lake Mead: Las Vegas. 

By putting forth S. 567, a bill that will sprawl an area the size of Miami or St. Louis alongside the existing Vegas footprint, lawmakers are making a big bet that future residents will have ample water to exist in the Mojave Desert.

According to population estimates ballyhooed to justify the bill, the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act hopes to draw more than 820,000 new residents to Southern Nevada’s patch of the Mojave Desert in the next 40 years. That means there will be hundreds of thousands of new consumers of the Colorado River in a fast-warming region in the nation’s driest state. 

As it stands, about 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from the rapidly shrinking Colorado River. When someone buys a home or starts a business in a community, there is an expectation that water will be there. That is not a guarantee with this bill.

Does this sound sensible?

During a recent subcommittee hearing among members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, onlookers heard questionable rhetoric about how selling off vast swathes of public lands to developers will solve the region’s housing crisis and generate economic growth that will trickle down to all Nevadans.

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We didn’t hear one word about water or Lake Mead.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, Southern Nevada’s developed footprint has expanded — while Lake Mead has receded. 

Areas once underwater at Lake Mead are now baking in the desert sun. Marinas are closing because there isn’t enough water. Water intakes that once conveyed the Colorado River to communities have been left high and dry.

Forty years ago, this reservoir stored an additional 5.5 trillion gallons. Today, Lake Mead is at its lowest level ever. Next month it will be even lower. The downward trend is expected for years to come.

Hydropower generation at Hoover Dam –– which serves Southern California and Las Vegas –– is down 25 percent because less water means less pressure to spin turbines that create electrons. The changes are so stark that satellite imagery capture the human growth and water decline better than words ever could. 

Surely, that’s worth considering as Congress weighs the purported benefits of Cortez Masto’s so-called Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act.

Today, the Las Vegas metropolitan area is home to some 2.2 million residents and serves 40 million tourists per year. Nevada has the smallest share of any state with water rights on the Colorado River.

To its credit, the region’s municipal water wholesaler, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), has made major investments to shore up its 276,000 acre feet of annual Colorado River water rights (which amount to 2 percent of the river). Green lawn removal, strict watering policies and other measures have ensured that current residents can have a reliable, sustainable water supply.

But Cortez Masto’s bill will require new pipelines feeding the Colorado River to new developments. That makes little sense when we consider what the future holds.

Hydrologic modeling of future Colorado River flows conducted by the water authority demonstrates that there are scenarios where Las Vegas will need a new water supply in the coming decades.

Where will that water come from? 

It is myopic to put forward a bill that invites hundreds of thousands of new residents to a place without an identified, sustainable supply of water. The failure to discuss that during the Senate subcommittee hearing underscores a disturbing fact. When it comes to supply and demand of water in the Mojave Desert, the bill’s backers seem willing to just roll the dice.

The stakes are too high for politicians to continue business as usual. As it stands, this bill is a bad bet.

Patrick Donnelly is Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Kyle Roerink is executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.