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Water authority puts water banking agreement with Arizona on hold

For the time being, Nevada’s water bank in Arizona is closed.

Since 2005, Nevada has socked away almost three years’ worth of Colorado River water in the Grand Canyon State and paid more than $122 million for the privilege.

On Thursday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted to put the banking agreement on hold.

The move will allow the cash-strapped authority to forgo another $217 million in payments while freeing thirsty Arizona to keep the roughly 600,000 acre-feet of river water it still owed Nevada under the landmark, 7-year-old agreement.

The pact marked the first time Arizona agreed to sell a portion of its Colorado River allocation to Nevada. It was set to run through 2060 and supply the Las Vegas Valley with 1.25 million acre-feet of water at a cost of more than $300 million.

One acre-foot is enough water to supply two average valley homes for a year.

Nevada’s basic annual allotment of water from the Colorado is 300,000 acre-feet, while Arizona gets 2.8 million acre-feet a year, the third-most among the seven states that draw from the river.

Authority Deputy General Manager John Entsminger said that since the deal with Arizona was signed, Nevada has managed to store close to 650,000 acre-feet elsewhere, so the state has no pressing need for the rest of the water it planned to buy from Arizona.

The biggest block came from a storage reservoir the authority helped pay for hundreds of miles outside of its service area.

In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed construction of a
$172 million reservoir along the Colorado River near the U.S.-Mexico border to store excess irrigation water. The authority picked up 80 percent of the tab in exchange for 400,000 acre-feet of water it can take out of Lake Mead over the next 25 years as conditions on the river permit.

The authority has stored another 220,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead for future use through a federal water credit program and a separate banking arrangement with California.

Entsminger said water officials in Arizona have signed off on changes to the banking agreement that remove the obligation for water to be stored and for the authority to pay for it.

Virginia O’Connell, manager of the Arizona Water Banking Authority, said the changes to the agreement “were not based on water availability in Arizona” but on providing the two states with greater flexibility.

“The amendment removes the obligation to store a specific amount of water by a specific deadline,” she said in an email Thursday.

Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said Nevada is “leaving the door open” to resume banking Colorado River water in Arizona someday “when they have the water and we have the money.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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