Las Vegas Makes an End Run to Get More Colorado River Water

Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org[/caption]

The politics of Colorado River water rival those of Northern Ireland and Lebanon for complexity, opaqueness to outsiders, and rivalries going back decades. Even those familiar with the territory aren’t always sure what’s going on. Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) headed by Pat Mulroy give surrounding states twitches as they try to figure out what SNWA will do next. And SNWA is making moves again.

Southern Nevada has a big water problem. It gets almost 90% of its water from the Colorado River. The problem for Nevada, and especially Las Vegas, is that it agreed to a tiny apportionment of Lower Basin Colorado River water in the 1940’s when its population was small. But then Vegas exploded in population.

Nevada gets just 4% of Lower Basin Colorado River water while Arizona gets 37% and California 59%, despite the Hoover Dam being near Las Vegas. This is separate from the agreement for Upper Basin water shared by Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. (Yes, Arizona gets shares from both Upper and Lower Basin agreements.)

Like California where Governor Jerry Brown wants to build a big pipe diverting water from the Sacramento Delta, sending it south to Central Valley agriculture and to the Los Angeles –San Diego megalopolis, the SNWA wants to build big pipes, two of them in fact. One would be a “third straw” to draw water out of Lake Mead at a lower level due to water scarcity and drought. The other big pipe, and much more controversial, would funnel water out of four valleys sending it 300 miles to Las Vegas.

Environmentalists, Native Americans, ranchers, and others oppose to this water grab, saying it would wreak havoc on wildlife vegetation, and possibly create dust bowls. The proposed big pipe would have been in five valleys except that Utah is dead set opposed to it and has veto powers over one valley.(As one who recently lived in Utah, I can confidently say the opinions of Utahns about attempted Vegas water grabs is “over our dead bodies.”)

Interestingly, the valleys in question would appear to be part of a Colorado River tributary basin. So is the SNWA making an end run around their admittedly microscopic allocation by getting Colorado River water a different way?

Complicating all this is the stark fact that SNWA is $3.3 billion in debt and both of the big pipes will cost them billions more so they will somehow have to borrow or get state and federal agencies to help pay for.

A comment on ChanceofRain says

It will be a terrible loss to Nevada, but we are willing to send Pat (and her triple-digit percentage water rate increases for churches, nonprofits and residents v. 2 percent increases for golf courses and casinos) to California as long as you agree to never, ever send her back.

The water wars never really stop in the American Southwest and West.