Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto calls on the Department of the Interior to submit a detailed plan for water conservation among Colorado River basin states Monday. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto joined state water officials Monday to demand immediate federal action on the Colorado River water crisis as Nevada faces its second year of mandatory water cuts.
Last week, federal officials announced that Nevada would lose about 8% of its water allocation, or 25,000 acre-feet of water, starting January 2023 as a stopgap solution to stabilize water levels at Lake Mead.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency in charge of managing much of the West’s water, said states within the Colorado River basin needed to cut usage between 2 and 4 million acre feet in 2023 to protect the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs. However, states in the region failed to meet that federal deadline, leading to last week’s cuts.
Following last week’s announcement, Cortez Masto sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior demanding “federal actions and measures to ensure all Lower Basin states” are conserving water, rather than relying on cuts to lower basin states like Nevada.
Arizona and Mexico also face cuts starting next year, about 21% and 7% respectively. California, a lower basin state, will not face water cuts in 2023 under Tier 2 reductions, a drought contingency plan approved in 2019 which lays out how water will be doled out if a shortage occurs.
The Colorado River Basin covers more than 250,000 square miles and provides water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The Nevada senator urged the department to deliver a detailed, timely plan to disburse the $4 billion in drought funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act within 90 days. She also called for the distribution of the drought funding to be allocated to states with comprehensive conservation plans.
The Department must “prioritize that funding for those states that are engaging in meaningful long term and permanent reductions in their water use,” Cortez Masto said. “The administration needs to take a stronger role in ensuring all states along the Colorado River are contributing a fair share of efforts to combat drought. The DOI must urge all Colorado River states to take the actions Nevada has already taken to conserve water.”
Water use in the Las Vegas valley is less than it was 20 years ago due to strong conservation efforts, Cortez Masto said.
“We consistently use less than our current allotment from the Colorado River,” Cortez Masto emphasized. “We are one of the only areas in the nation using less water each year.”
As a result of Nevada’s conservation, water users in the state will not be affected by the cuts for now, but water officials warn that Southern Nevada’s economic future will depend on further conservation efforts.
Southern Nevada water users consume 110 gallons per person per day. Projected growth for the region can only remain sustainable if water use is cut to 86 gallons per person per day by 2035, said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger.
“If we do that, our economic diversification that we’ve been experiencing is sustainable,” said Entsminger.
Entsminger expressed frustration over the lack of “meaningful collective action” and federal leadership over the past two months in a letter last week addressed to Debra Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior.
In the letter, Entsminger included a number of actions that could be taken to minimize water use through existing federal authorities and programs, including developing a basin-wide turf removal program, incentivizing conversions to lower water-use crops and investing in water recycling and desalination programs.
This year alone, the Las Vegas Valley has removed 5 million square feet of turf, said Entsminger.
“It’s not easy,” Entsminger said. “Our local elected officials have been making some very tough votes on golf course budgets, on limiting pool sizes, but it’s working.”
Entsminger criticized the Bureau of Reclamation for not enforcing a meaningful federal deadline for a water conservation plan among the Colorado River basin states.
The bureau threatened to unilaterally reduce water usage in the Colorado River Basin if state and tribal leaders failed to reach an agreement by summer, however, the agency has not followed through on those threats or outlined any federal plans to conserve the massive amounts of water needed to protect the reservoirs.
“We need a real plan and we need a real deadline, and we must use these once in a generation federal resources for permanent systemic reductions in water use across the basin” Entsminger said.
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