Nevada’s Luck Not Good Thus Far on Water Deal


Like many states, Indiana wrestles with water supply issues and a viable statewide plan is desperately needed. However, our situation is not nearly as dire as it is for Nevada. Stateline documents how a water pact between Nevada and Utah, which was mandated in 2004 and tentatively agreed to in 2009, has now washed down the drain as Utah's governor poured cold water on the deal (so many water puns).

Now Nevada — and the nation — must combat the challenges of having a major city and global tourist destination in the middle of the desert. As a poker enthusiast, Las Vegas has a special place in my heart and I truly hope an agreement can be reached to keep Southern Nevada from having to swim upstream on this issue (sorry). Stateline writes:

The states produced a plan by 2009, splitting the rights down the middle. Utah had already appropriated about 18 billion gallons, more than four times what Nevada had. Under the agreement, Nevada would have received another 12 billion gallons per year, with Utah getting 2 billion more.

Nevada quickly signed. But Herbert, a Republican, long put off his decision amid legal challenges and further study.

The pact would allow Nevada to send Snake Valley water to Las Vegas through a proposed pipeline that could also include straws to nearby communities.

Some 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam reservoir fed by the Colorado River. Studies have shown, however, the supply is shrinking by as much as 7 percent each year, exacerbated by recent severe drought.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has called the pipeline a safety net, only to be built if Lake Mead becomes dangerously low, which some water experts say could happen within a decade. But questions have arisen about whether the authority could finance the multi-billion project.

In Utah and parts of Nevada, the pipeline prospect has proved unpopular, spurring loud protests from a variety of groups, including environmentalists, Native American tribes, farmers and ranchers who worry the project would damage the communities and threaten their way of life.

“The project would create a massive dustbowl,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which has opposed the pipeline and the pact.

The ultimate fear is that Snake Valley would face the same fate as California’s Owens Lake, which catastrophically dried up nearly a century ago when officials diverted its water source — the Owens River— to feed booming Los Angeles. Today, though some flow has returned, the vast salty area northeast of Los Angeles remains the largest single source of dust pollution in the U.S.

Last October, a trio of water attorneys advised Herbert that the agreement was the preferred option to a lengthy legal battle.

“The agreements, while not perfect, provide a framework to protect the interests of water users and citizens as a whole in each state and provide a process to address adverse impacts early on if detected to avoid significant harm to anyone,” the report said.

But on Wednesday, after visiting locals who would be impacted by a water transfer, Herbert announced he would not sign.

“There is no more complex and emotional issue with which I have grappled as governor of this great state,” he said. “I won't impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselves cannot support.”

Now, it’s Nevada’s move, but it’s unclear what it will do.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority said it was disappointed in Herbert’s decision. “In the coming days and weeks, we will evaluate our options to address this unprecedented action,” it said in a statement.

Nevada governor Brian Sandoval’s office referred questions to the state’s Division of Environmental Protection, which did not answer messages.

McCool, the water expert, said Las Vegas’ water crisis, along with the political and financial challenges of proposed projects to meet its needs, could spur Utah to sell some of its unallocated rights along the Colorado to Nevada. Or, further in the future, perhaps all seven states will rework the 91-year-old Colorado River Compact to give Nevada a bigger share.

Under the compact, Nevada only receives 4 percent of the allocations. That’s because no one in 1922 anticipated some 2 million people would eventually make their lives in the desert.

“The straw that breaks the camel’s back is going to be Las Vegas,” said McCool, who dubs this period in western water history “the big shakeout.”

“This is where we’ll figure out who has the political will and connections to get this thing done.”