Nevada Newsmakers

Las Vegas has enough water for growth, as long as strict conservation system is used, Southern Nevada water chief says

News - June 13, 2024

The Las Vegas Valley, now with an estimated population of about 2.8 million people, could add close to another million people within the next 50 years, according to the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research .

The Las Vegas Valley sits in an arid landscape and depends on the Colorado River as its main water source.

Yet there should be enough water for the future growth with the continuation of water saving practices such as the current closed loop of water treatment and redistribution, John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said on Nevada Newsmakers recently.

"I tell people all the time, you can turn on every faucet, every shower head in every hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip and leave them running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Entsminger told host Sam Shad.

"And we won't deplete any more water from the Colorado River because all of that water goes down the drain, goes to a water treatment plant, goes down the Las Vegas wash, goes back into Lake Mead, and we take it back out," Entsminger continued.

"It's a closed loop," he said. "So as long as your expansion into Apex (North Las Vegas), or expansion into Ivanpah (for an auxiliary airport), or expansion of West Henderson, as long as all of those things are built on that same closed loop concept, you can continue to develop without using substantially more water."

Strategies for saving water -- developed by SNWA -- have the Las Vegas Valley on the cutting edge when it comes to water conservation, Entsminger said.

"Just in the last four years and four months, we've had over 60,000 new connections in this valley," he said. "So one connection can be a single family home, one connection can be the new Durango Station (casino complex)."

"And with 60,000 new connections in the valley, we've reduced our water consumption by 26 percent, just in the last four years, " Entsminger continued. "So people tend to correlate population growth or economic development with automatic increase in water consumption. And it's just not the case on the ground."

By some standards, the way SNWA preserves water is almost a miracle, some have said.

"So we're not surprised, by the increase in population," Entsminger said. "But, we have been doing tremendously in being able to grow, actually with a negative water footprint. "

Entsminger predicts the growth in the Ivanpah Valley -- the site of the proposed second airport for Las Vegas -- will test SNWA's working model. Almost 7,000 acres have been set aside for the airport with another 17,000 acres projected as developments for homes and businesses.

All the water that heads down to the Ivanpah Valley should be maintained in SNWA's closed-loop system, Entsminger said.

"From a water-footprint perspective, the critical thing is, if we run a water line out to Ivanpah, the wastewater line has to come back the other way," Entsminger said.

Other modern water-saving strategies must be put in place around the Ivanpah airport development, he said.

"If you don't allow grass, if you mandate mechanical cooling instead of evaporation cooling, you can make that entire expansion of the community essentially a zero water footprint -- as long as the wastewater comes back the other way.

"So the number of people, the number of acreage developed isn't the driving factor in water consumption," he said. "It's what you allow the water to be used for that will ultimately determine how much water you deplete from the Colorado River system."

Colorado River issues
Las Vegas would not be Nevada's major-league city without the water from the Colorado River. Yet Nevada shares the resources of the Colorado River with six other states. The allocation of the water is complicated and controversial.

Besides Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and miles of multi-state farmland depend of water from this mighty river. Yet those entities have deep-seated disagreements with each other that need to be resolved, Entsminger said.

Entsminger, Nevada's representative on the seven-member board that oversees distribution of Colorado River water, sees no quick solutions to the supply-and-demand imbalance of the river water.

“We’re 30 months out (in finding a solution),” Entsminger told KAWC radio at a Colorado River water conference earlier this month in Boulder, Colo. “We’re very much in the second or third inning of this baseball game that we’re playing here.”

The states involved are divided into two camps, according to reports. Nevada, California and Arizona are on one side while Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are on the other.

"It's difficult," Entsminger said. "You have seven states with 40 million Americans reliant in whole or in part on the Colorado River.

"And every solution that's possible requires sacrifice and, Americans, frankly, aren't used to making those kinds of sacrifices," Entsminger said. "So the negotiations are tense but I believe there are realistic solutions that are on the table and that we will ultimately get there."

Colorado River water issues go back for decades, even centuries, Entsminger said.

"The simplest way to understand this extremely complex situation is we have 18th-century water laws. We-have 20th century infrastructure, and we have 21st-century climate, and none of those things fit together," he said.

"So it's up to a set of imperfect humans to come up with a solution that basically requires everybody across seven states to use less water and do it in a cooperative manner, which is a very difficult situation."

If the seven-member Colorado River board can't agree on water allotments, then the courts or Congress must decide, Entsminger said.

"One way or another, humans are going to have to decide how to use less water moving into the future," he said.

Entsminger wants the Colorado River board to make the decisions, although other board members may feel differently.

"Far and away, my preference is to have the seven states drive a consensus solution, as to how we're going to manage this river for decades to come," he said.

"But I do think some incentives probably have changed where some states feel like it would be politically easier if a court mandated them to do something rather than it is for them to make that decision themselves and then go face their water users."

About 80 percent of Colorado River water goes to agriculture, Entsminger said, and more water could be saved with modern, water-saving techniques.

"You know, I testified in the U.S. Senate a couple of years ago, and (Sen.) Joe Manchin (D, W. Va.) asked me if I were emperor for a day, what's the one thing I would do? And I said, massive federal investment in agricultural efficiency.

"We've seen projects where you can grow alfalfa with drip irrigation, instead of ... flood irrigation," he said. "And it works. But it takes a tremendous amount of investment on the ground to replicate the food production with really efficient, irrigation practices."

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