Tweaks to Nevada water law pitched at drought summit

CARSON CITY — Managers and overseers of public water systems joined others Tuesday in recommending tweaks to Nevada water law to reward conservation and spread responsibility to conserve during times of drought.

"I think ultimately water rights management has to evolve from the strict prior appropriation to more of a paradigm of shared risk," said John Entsminger, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority, an agency in charge of water for 2 million Las Vegas Valley residents and 40 million annual visitors.

Existing water law is anchored on the principles of beneficial use and a pecking order that gives owners of the oldest water rights first dibs at the trough.

Those two concepts are coming under increased scrutiny. Some people suggest the "use it or lose it" criteria for water rights is at odds with the goal of rewarding conservation. Others question whether giving senior water right holders access to water at the expense of others in times of drought does not necessarily benefit the public good.

Still others, including the Nevada Mining Association and the holding firm of several small private water companies, urged a slow approach to water law overhauls, suggesting too drastic changes could lead to perilous unintended consequences.

Water and drought management are front and center this week in Carson City, as users, regulators and managers dive deep into the shortcomings and benefits of more than a century of state water law and explore innovative ways to stretch every drop to sustain competing interests — from domestic drinking water and rural agriculture to golf courses and ski slopes.

A drought forum established by Gov. Brian Sandoval is tasked with recommending by the end of the year ways Nevada can best prepare for continued drought. That panel will meet Sept. 28 to identify priorities that have emerged from months of public workshops and this week's summit.

Sandoval convened the panel in April after four years of drought that reduced rivers to a trickle, drained reservoirs and left majestic snow-capped mountain peaks bare.

Sandoval said Monday the recommendations will likely be incorporated into his agenda for the 2017 Legislature.

In Las Vegas, 90 percent of water comes from Lake Mead fed by the Colorado River, a system that has been experiencing drought for 15 years. But Entsminger said the region is prepared to weather even worst-case drought conditions well into the future because of aggressive conservation efforts.

He noted the Southern Nevada economy generates 70 percent of the state's total economic output but uses only 11 percent of statewide water resources. About 95 percent of indoor water use in Las Vegas is captured, treated and reused, and water used for outdoors is lost.

The authority launched an aggressive program to pay water users to remove water-sucking turf. To date, it has paid out $220 million, and the amount removed could nearly wrap the circumference of the globe in a grassy ribbon 18 inches wide, Entsminger said.

Southern Nevadans used 32 billion gallons less Colorado River water last year than in 2000 despite a population increase of more than 520,000 people, he said.

Entsminger said desalination and importing water from rural Nevada remain part of the authority's long-range planning portfolio, but he doesn't expect those options to come into play for decades.

Bruce Scott, chairman of the state Board for Financing Water Projects, said he hopes Sandoval makes water a top priority in the next legislative session.

"I think water has been ignored way too long," Scott said.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb