How will Las Vegas fare in a future with less water?

Is Las Vegas going to run out of water?

It might feel that way if you’ve been paying any attention to the growing bathtub ring around Lake Mead, the shrinking Colorado River and federal actions to try to keep the river’s main reservoirs in working order.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are filled by the Colorado River, reached all-time lows in 2022. Upstream from Lake Mead, Lake Powell sank mere feet away from the level where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer operate, compromising power for millions in the Southwest.

This year, the river has operated under restrictions by the federal government called a “Tier 2 shortage,” meaning that Nevada had to give up 8% of its usual allotment.

Going into 2024, the river will be under a Tier 1 shortage, meaning Nevada will have to give up 7% of its Colorado River allotment. After a wet winter, water levels have risen in Lake Mead by 24 feet after reaching a record low in 2022. But a relaxing of restrictions would be premature. Currently, the reservoir sits at only one-third full.

“As nice as it is to have a wet winter and give everybody some breathing room, 2023 does not fundamentally change any of the long-term problems. And we need to keep the accelerator to the floor and continue to work on a long-term solution,” says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist and scholar with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

Udall says the decline in reservoir storage since 2000 has been “pronounced.” Whereas Lake Mead was close to 100% full in 2000, it was only about one-quarter full in 2022. Declining inflows to the Colorado River, caused by higher temperatures and reduced precipitation, as well as overallocation of river water, have begun to deplete it, Udall tells the Weekly.

“We really do need to plan on future flow reductions, and potentially quite large ones,” he says.

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently working with states on a plan for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam through 2026, and a longer-term “interim” plan that will replace current guidelines for Lower Basin shortages and coordinated operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The interim plan would go into effect in 2027, and is expected to set the rules of operation for 20 years.

Pat Mulroy, senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV’s School of Law, says states and water managers have an uphill battle ahead with regard to implementing permanent cuts in demand that scientists say are needed to sustain the Colorado River.

“They’ve got a heavy lift in front of them to convince certain users to permanently give up water,” Mulroy tells the Weekly. “Unless there is water added to the overall system, I don’t see a solution readily apparent, because I think we’ll all end up in court.”

As the federal government, seven Colorado River states and Mexico work on that, we’re wondering, what will happen in Las Vegas in the next few decades as Las Vegas potentially runs lower on water supplies?

Higher temperatures, more evaporation

Climate change continues to add uncertainty to the mix when it comes to planning water resources.

Colorado River flows are down 20% compared to the 20th century average. They’re expected to continue to decrease as more greenhouse gases are emitted, Udall says.

“It’s clear … that the decline in flows is due to two things. One, higher temperatures which promote more evaporation. And we’ve also seen since 2000 a very interesting reduction in precipitation,” he says. “We think we end up losing between five and 10% of the flow for every degree Celsius increase in temperature. And temperatures are up about a degree and a half … in the Basin since the 1970s.”

“Unfortunately, we’re not doing a good enough job on getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” he adds, referencing a goal set by former Gov. Steve Sisolak in accordance with the U.S. Climate Alliance, which current Gov. Joe Lombardo withdrew Nevada from last July.

Michael Cohen, senior researcher at the Pacific Institute, says if greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere at current rates, temperatures will continue to rise leading to greater evaporation, reduced runoff and unpredictable precipitation patterns.

“In the West, a lot of fossil fuel extraction continues, particularly in the Upper Basin. So there’s still coal and oil dependent economies in the Colorado River Basin, which are contributing directly to additional carbon emissions, heating up the planet and reducing runoff,” he says.

Southern Nevada ‘years ahead’

Despite the challenges presented by climate change, Southern Nevada remains one of the most water-secure communities along the Colorado River. Scientists and water managers agree that Southern Nevada is a poster child for water conservation and drought resiliency.

About 99% of all indoor water use in Southern Nevada is recycled and returned to Lake Mead. And despite the population having grown by approximately 750,000 since 2002, consumptive water use has decreased by 30% over the past two decades, says Bronson Mack, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).

“We are about 20 years ahead of just about any community in the Basin,” he tells the Weekly.

The water authority is confident Las Vegas can weather even a Tier 3 federal shortage, under which Nevada would have to give up 30,000 acre-feet of its usual 300,000 acre-feet allotment. (One acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons of water.)

“This year, we’re on track to have our consumptive water use below 200,000 acre feet. … So we’re in good shape from that standpoint,” Mack says.

Las Vegas doesn’t need to worry about running out of water in the short term. In 2020, the water authority installed a $1.5 billion low level pumping station and third intake pipe, meaning that even if Lake Mead’s level gets so low that it can no longer deliver water downstream, Southern Nevada water managers will still be able to draw water from the massive reservoir, which currently has about 8.8 million acre-feet stored.

Mack says between groundwater, Lake Mead storage and water assets in other states, the water authority has about 12 years’ worth of water stored.

“That is huge, because that’s really a block of water that we can use in the event that we see water demands go in the wrong direction and start increasing, or have a crazy issue with population growth, that we’ve got reserved supplies that we can tap until we bring new water supplies on,” Mack says.

Investment in California water recycling

The SNWA is expected to get additional water supplies in the next few years, after the water authority was approved to invest up to $700 million to help fund a $3 billion project by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “It’s basically what we do here to recycle our indoor water use,” Mack explains, adding that Nevada would be entitled to 25% to 30% of the water that comes from the plant.

“Rather than pipe that treated wastewater from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Los Angeles will use it locally. And we’ll give them our share of that water in exchange for a share of California’s Colorado River water,” he says.

The project is expected to undergo final environmental reviews in 2025, according to the Metropolitan Water District’s website. It is expected to add about 25,000 acre-feet to Southern Nevada’s annual water supply, Mack says.

Innovations in conservation and economic development

WaterStart, a nonprofit that helps connect water agencies and major water consumers with innovative technology, is working with the water authority to develop alternatives to evaporative cooling—a form of air conditioning common in commercial buildings. Evaporative cooling is the second-largest consumptive use of water in Southern Nevada.

“Commercial water consumption is where there’s going to be a lot of focus for the next 10 years,” says WaterStart CEO Nathan Allen.

The technology they’re piloting would not only save water, but also power.

“These [cooling panels] circulate heat from inside the building and run it into the panel,” Allen says. “These have a film on them that reflects more energy than it absorbs. The film was originally developed to reflect energy off a spacecraft when it re-enters the atmosphere, so it doesn’t burn up. It reflects energy out and cools the building. It’s a completely different novel approach to cooling a building down.”

WaterStart works with large companies and corporations to impact water conservation on a large scale. Through an initiative from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, WaterStart is developing technologies that can be paired with incentives for companies looking to move to Nevada. It’s a novel approach to integrating water management into economic development plans, something the state has emphasized since 2019.

The Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance (LVGEA) is piloting a “water investment rating tool” developed by the water authority to better understand companies’ water consumption and how that can be factored into economic development planning. If a company approaches a municipality, the LVGEA or Governor’s Office of Economic Development asking for incentives to move here, the water investment rating tool can be used to “grade” whether they’re a good fit for Southern Nevada. It also takes into consideration job creation, average salaries, capital investment and tax generation.

“You can attract all the [heavy] water users you want, but that will limit your future economic growth,” says Tina Quigley, President and CEO of the LVGEA. “We are the very first in the region to develop a tool like this. … It’s the very first time there’s a nexus between water consumption and economic development.”

City vs. farm

In the coming decades, there could be changes in farming practices along the Colorado River, where 70% to 80% of water is currently used for agriculture.

“[Even] if you removed all municipal demand from the river, you’d still have a huge problem, and that problem’s agriculture,” Udall says.

Last spring, the Bureau of Reclamation discussed paying farmers to leave their fields unplanted and allow the water that would’ve been used to irrigate crops to stay in the Colorado River—a common practice that has been used for decades. Funding would have come from $4 billion set aside in the Inflation Reduction Act for Western drought aid.

The Bureau of Reclamation on November 3 announced nearly $64 million for agreements with various Arizona tribes and agricultural entities to voluntarily conserve up to 162,710 acre-feet of water. Contractors can earn up to $400 per acre-foot they don’t use from their allotment of Colorado River water.

Mulroy, who served as the general manager of the SNWA from 1989 to 2014, says conflict could arise along the river if farmers are asked to permanently give up their water rights—rights that take legal precedence over most other users.

“That’s a lot of money coming from [the Department of the] Interior. … And they’re going to use the bulk of it, hopefully if they can find willing leasers, to lease water from farmers,” Mulroy says. “There’s one conversation in which you say to the farmers, ‘Let me temporarily take some of your water, and you take the rest.’ It’s a whole other conversation to say we want you to permanently give up a quarter of your water supply. That’s when the wheels come off the wagon.”

Scientists say permanent cuts in demand will be necessary for the long-term viability of the Colorado River. For Mulroy, the question is whether those cuts will come from agriculture or from urban centers.

“I think the confrontation is going to be between agriculture and urban. … And I think we’re going to push it right to the brink,” Mulroy says.

That will be more of a conversation for other states, says hydrologist and UNLV professor David Kreamer.

“If I had a crystal ball, I would say we would continue to do agricultural reduction of water use, in particular. And that’s more of a California thing, as far as the Colorado river goes,” he says.

What about desalination?

Mulroy says desalination is “the most logical place to go next” for the Lower Basin states. But whether water managers actually get there remains a question largely hinging on financing, practicality and environmental concerns.

Take for instance the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego. It cost $1 billion, according to a fact sheet from the San Diego County Water Authority. The plant meets approximately 10% of the water demand for a region of about 3.3 million people.

Mulroy believes such an investment would be worth it, if that means augmenting Southern Nevada’s water supplies and stabilizing supply and demand on the river.

“There is no such thing as a water project that doesn’t have a constituent of opponents. The first thing they’ll lob at you is how expensive it is. So, it’s OK to spend billions to lease water from farmers and cut down on the food supply, but it’s not OK to spend billions to build a project to add water to the system?” Mulroy says.

Udall says he believes desalination would help, but would make only a very small dent in the amount of water that needs to be conserved in the Colorado River.

“I think we need about 1.5 million acre-feet in Lower Basin demand reductions on a permanent basis,” Udall says. “I think desalination will be part of the solution. Given numbers like 1.5 million acre-feet though, you’re not going to come remotely close to fixing it.”

Ngai Yin Yip, a desalination expert and assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University, says while desalination has proven effective in places like Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Africa, it remains the most expensive means of getting potable water.

“If we have surface water and treat it, the energy it would take to turn it into drinking water would be one-tenth or one-twentieth the energy it would take to desalinate seawater. If you want to desalinate seawater, it’s going to cost 10 to 20 times more than surface water.”

That’s not to mention the fact that Nevada doesn’t have a coastline. To employ seawater desalination, the SNWA would need to invest in a desalination plant in California or Mexico.

“You’re looking at something that could be upwards of $2,000 or $3,000 an acre-foot. Right now, Colorado River water is somewhere closer to about $300 an acre-foot,” Mack says. “There have been challenges getting desalination permitted in the U.S. and specifically within California more than anything. It probably is more likely that we would see some type of partnership with the country of Mexico.”

Yip adds that one of the reasons permitting has been difficult is because local areas oppose desalination for its environmental effects. The byproduct of desalination is brine, which is toxic to ecosystems.

“If you don’t have a sustainable option for the brine, it can pose a lot of environmental issues,” he says. “Essentially, people don’t want this in their backyard.”

How about groundwater?

While Las Vegas gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, it gets 10% from an aquifer beneath the city.

Nevada has 345,000 acre-feet of water stored in the local groundwater system. The SNWA has rights to an additional 46,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually, and treats and uses that to meet demands in the summer.

And although Mack says that’s expected to be the case for the “foreseeable future,” it doesn’t hurt to have systems in place in the event the water authority is granted the right to pump and use more groundwater.

WaterStart is working on approaches to treating groundwater in a decentralized manner.

“Groundwater is distributed over a big area. And to access that, there are a lot of different wells that will need to be used. One of the challenges that they’ve got to figure out is, how do you treat that water over this distributed area? … If you’ve got to run big power lines to get even more electricity to those sites to serve the treatment, that’s a higher cost,” Allen says.

LED bulbs can be used to kill contaminants in groundwater, and eliminate the need for the construction of additional power lines.

“They’re a great way to mitigate the need for power at those wells … And based on what the contaminant is, you can dial the power up and down to kill different contaminants,” he explains.

‘Not the apocalypse’

As they relate to water availability and conservation, the Colorado River, climate change, technology and politics might be difficult to predict. But Mulroy says the signs would be obvious if Las Vegas really was running out of water.

“I think the day you hear that no water is being released from Lake Mead downstream, that’s a good warning sign,” she says. “Certainly I’m not saying Las Vegas is going to run out of water, because for that to happen, Los Angeles, Phoenix, northern Mexico will have run out. They’re going to lose it long before we do.”

For now, the Bureau of Reclamation, western states and local water managers have a little breathing room to figure out a plan for the coming decades. The hope is that politics don’t get in the way of a solution, Cohen says.

“Political posturing makes me very concerned that we’re not going to be able to craft a durable solution, even given the gift of the incredibly wet winter we had last year,” Cohen says. “Instead of the Upper Basin and Lower Basin working together, we have a lot of finger-pointing, particularly from the Upper Basin states saying that it’s a Lower Basin problem. And we still have a lot of people falling back on what they see is their potential legal protections in terms of water rights, and saying that others should bear the brunt of the reductions.”

Withstanding some uncertainty, the experts are watching the signs very closely and working proactively to ensure there is water in Las Vegas’ future.

“No one should be denying how serious the situation is. We are in uncharted territory. We don’t really know what is going to happen to our water resources based on climate change,” Allen says. “But just because the headlines are finally talking about this doesn’t mean that the professionals are just starting to talk about it. We’ve been working on this for 10 years, as the [SNWA] has been working on this for longer.”

“It’s not the apocalypse. We’ll figure it out. We have to.”

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