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Where will Nevada get more water?

Henry Brean’s Feb. 13 article, “Study gives 50-50 odds Lake Mead will dry up by 2021,” and the Review-Journal editorial on the subject the following day were intriguing. As a youth, I grew up in the ephemeral ranching lands of eastern Nevada, where a little bit of water was our life-blood.

Because of a dry climatic cycle, Lake Mead is half full. This presents significant challenges for Southern Nevada — we are at a crossroad. All options capable of helping us meet our water needs should be on the table.

In the late 1980s, I was invited to the peaking ceremony at Hoover Dam when Lake Mead was running over due to a short wet cycle, thus providing the high water line we see around Lake Mead today.

The Colorado River Dam System was built to harness the wild Colorado River for reclamation, power generation and recreation. It was almost an afterthought by some forward-thinking Southern Nevada Water Authority officials, who pushed the concept of utilizing Nevada’s share of the Colorado River waters to meet our growth needs. Without the vision of these water pioneers, Las Vegas would not be what it is today.

In 1978, I was working for former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada. Sen. Laxalt, Manuel Lopez, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City at the time, and I met to review the assigned allocations of water for the entire Colorado River system: Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California. Sen. Laxalt was concerned about the future water needs of Southern Nevada and how to meet them. His concerns were:

— What impact will climatic cycles have on the Colorado River’s ability to provide the water needs of Southern Nevada?

— Will Southern Nevada continue its historic grow rate?

— What conservation measures should be implemented to stretch Nevada’s water resources?

— What impacts will the Central Utah and Central Arizona Projects have on Nevada’s ability to draw its full allocation from the Colorado River?

— Can we provide Mexico with the amount of treaty-promised acre-feet?

Following the meeting with Mr. Lopez, Sen. Laxalt directed that a white paper be prepared to address Nevada’s water needs for Senate consideration. The next three months were spent at the UNLV library, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the office of Mr. Lopez and with State Senate Majority Leader James I. Gibson. I also used references I had collected while preparing a college paper for a Conservation of National Resources class at Brigham Young University back in the late 1960s.

The result was a 50-page white paper entitled: “Western Water: Past, Present and Future.” The white paper concluded:

— The Colorado River is the most allocated river system in America.

— The West and Southwest were growing at more than twice the rate of other regions.

— There is a finite amount of water available in the Southwest, with an overabundance of surplus fresh water in the Northwest. Approximately 90 percent of such water flows go unused.

— Through a series of conservation initiatives, the existing water allocation for Nevada could accommodate reasonable population growth in Southern Nevada for the immediate future only.

A major construction and engineering company proposed a series of water basin diversions to reallocate surplus water from as far away as the Great Lakes and the Columbia and Snake rivers to the more arid regions of the 17 Western states, from Canada to Mexico. By using existing river systems like the Colorado River, transporting the surplus water would be easy and inexpensive.

Once Sen. Laxalt was satisfied that the conclusions of the white paper were sound, he met with Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington, who chaired the Senate Interior Committee, to discuss a legislative initiative to meet the West’s future water needs. Sen. Jackson initially stressed support for the surplus water reallocation initiative, telling Sen. Laxalt that he needed time to study the concept.

A couple of weeks later, Sen. Laxalt called me somewhat disheartened, indicating that in a procedural move by Sen. Jackson, he had inserted language into a bill that prohibited the study of reallocating surplus waters via trans basin diversions in the United States for 25 years.

The 25-year moratorium is now up. It’s a different day. Nevada’s Harry Reid is the powerful Senate majority leader, and with Sen. John Ensign by his side, it would be a great legacy for Nevada to provide a long-term solution to the West’s water needs.

Let’s encourage Sens. Reid and Ensign to implement a major water initiative that would bring surplus unallocated fresh and desalinated ocean waters to the more arid regions of the West. Now is the time to think outside the box.

With a little bit of help from a major water initiative, the Columbia River can run down the Colorado River, and desalinated ocean water can flow uphill.

We can do more to conserve water in our homes, businesses and public places. The water authority indicates that about 70 percent of our water is for external uses, not domestic or hotel uses. Let’s use our initiative and become more desert-friendly. And let’s encourage Nevada’s senators to leave a legacy for future generations.

Ashley Hall is a former Las Vegas city manager.

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