Nevada commits to long-term effort to protect the Colorado River system

In this aerial photo, a bathtub ring of light minerals show the high water mark on the shore of Lake Mead along the border of Nevada and Arizona, Monday, March 6, 2023, near Boulder City, Nev. The federal government is expected to make an announcement on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, about the health of the Colorado River and water cuts in 2024. (AP Photo/John Locher,File)

By Isabel Soisson

October 26, 2023

The Southern Nevada Water Authority announced last week that the state will continue working with both Arizona and California to find a long-term plan for maintaining the stability of the Colorado River.

“With a population of 2.3 million residents, Southern Nevada will use less than 200,000 acre-feet this year – our lowest annual water use since 1993 when our population was about 900,000 people,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a statement. “As a river community, we can all maintain diverse, robust economies while using less water, and the reductions in municipal and agricultural water use across the Lower Basin demonstrates that.”

By the end of this year, the Lower Basin cumulatively will have voluntarily conserved more than one million acre-feet under shortage reductions agreed to in 2007 and those of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan; this water is currently being held back in Lake Mead for the benefit of the entire Colorado River System.

Nevada also implemented a series of new water efficiency measures, which has reduced the state’s consumption of Colorado River water by 41% since 2002. These measures include pool size limits, prohibitions on new evaporative cooling, and more.

“The Colorado River is a vital resource for millions of Nevadans, and I am glad that the Southern Nevada Water Authority will continue its work with other Lower Basin States to help protect our water supply for future generations to come,” Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV) said in a statement. “I will make sure Nevada can continue leading the way when it comes to combating drought in the West.”

Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting ecosystems, species, and natural resources, also said that she’s “encouraged” by the news that Nevada will continue to work with the other Lower Basin states to find ways to protect the Colorado River system.

“Climate change has resulted in hotter, drier conditions in the Colorado River Basin, which is reducing water available for people and nature,” she said. “We will all have to live with less water while also protecting the health of the Colorado River system.”

This announcement comes as federal officials have outlined next steps in their long-term planning efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River system.

The Bureau of Reclamation published the Proposed Federal Action and a nearly 400-page Scoping Summary Report on how Colorado River operations will run after 2026, as current operation guidelines were created in 2007 and are set to expire at the end of that year.

The report took into account the more than 24,000 letter submissions it received from the public over two months to help formulate these next steps.

The bureau states in its report that officials are working to identify circumstances where the Interior Secretary would allocate funds to help reduce or increase the annual amount of water available for consumption use from Lake Mead to Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Officials are also looking into instances where it would be beneficial to coordinate the operations of Lake Mead with Lake Powell, such as when there are lower reservoir conditions. They’re also developing new ideas of how to store and deliver conserved water in both lakes in order to increase flexibility to meet water use needs in both areas, as well as address tribal concerns that current river management is “insufficient to address the range of interests, needs, and fundamental rights of the Basin Tribes.”

In the report, the bureau states that the current guidelines “have not sufficiently reduced risk” of drought and are not “robust enough to manage in a way that is sufficiently protective of the resources dependent on the Colorado River.” The report uses Glen Canyon Dam, where despite drought-response efforts, low reservoir conditions have persisted in recent years, as an example.

The Bureau of Reclamation will now begin drafting its environmental impact statement, which is expected to be finished by the end of next year. A finalized version will be available in late 2025, and a record of the decision is expected in 2026.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside over $8 million over five years for water infrastructure projects, including $300 million for the implementation of the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which is designed to reduce risks to the Colorado River from ongoing historic drought.

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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