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California Water Wars: Nevada Didn’t Grab Enough

by Bob Morris, published

What, you ask, does Nevada and Las Vegas have to do with California water?  Well, water wars aren’t just fought within states. They are also fought between states. Southern Nevada gets almost 90% of its water from the Colorado River. Southern California also gets substantial water from the Colorado, most of which goes to agriculture in the Imperial Valley. The Colorado River has the unenviable status of being the most litigated river in the world. The problem for Nevada is that it agreed to a small apportionment of Colorado River water back when their population was tiny. Southern Nevada gets 0.3 Million Acre Feet a Year (MAFY) while California gets a princely 4.4 MAFY.

But then gambling came to Las Vegas in a big way. The population soared. They now have persistent water problems, made worse by a decade of drought. Thus, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is on a mission to find water anywhere it can.

Nevada’s crown jewel is the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at Lake Mead. They get one-third of the power generated by it. But water levels at Lake Mead have dropped so precipitously that a “third straw” is needed to insure that water will be available. It will cost $800 million and no one is quite sure where the money will come from. In addition, SNWA has floated plans to build pipelines from northern Nevada and Utah, something which has met with vociferous opposition. They’ve also discussed building desalination plants in California or Mexico and swapping that for more water from the Colorado River.

Under The Law of The River which governs the Colorado, California, Nevada, and Arizona are allowed to use any Colorado River water not used by another state. But given the drought and growing populations, all three states are using their full allotments. This means no excess water for the other states.

SNWA is not currently a direct competitor with California for water due to the ancient agreement apportioning Colorado River water. Should that agreement ever change – and everyone know it is archaic – then SNWA could directly compete for more Colorado River water. However, SNWA is relentless in seeking more water and through swaps, desalination, and other agreements and is always looking to get more water from the Colorado. If they get more, someone else gets less. That is the real Law of The River.

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