Sometimes you don't get a second chance to do the right thing.
Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is faced with a difficult predicament. They have been charged with the task of getting more water... in the desert. They may as well have been assigned to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But, they can do it, at least for a while, by sucking every drop they can take from their neighbors. Of course, it's quite obvious that this would be very, very wrong.
Southern Nevada doesn't have to repeat the destruction of Owens Valley. We have learned so much in the century since the Los Angeles water grab. We have other options. We have the technology. All we need is the will.
What I recommend is a multi-faceted approach that addresses as many issues as possible related to water in the Southwest deserts. We will have to do more than just go get more water. We will have to figure out a coordinated plan that will help everyone, without ruining the environment of our homeland. I have four suggestions:
1. This is a complex issue, in part because Nevada and US water law is too complex for it's own good. Apparently, back when water laws were written; all that mattered were that those writing the laws got their cut. Those who take the water have all the rights. Therefore, the big users of water have too much to lose to want to reform the system. Good. The big water users shouldn't be the ones to reform the system anyway. That's what got us into this mess.
For instance; right now, California is taking three times it's allotment from the Colorado River – while Las Vegas has been limited to a tiny fraction of what California is alloted. And apparently, California's lawbreaking water wasters can't be stopped... at least not until Lakes Powell and Mead are empty. And then, when there isn't any more water to take, it won't be our pathetic laws that stop them. (This scenario might be far more likely than most of us think. I've heard rumors that Lake Powell could be empty within five years.)
We need to reform the Department of the Interior – now! And not the kind of reforms we've been seeing recently in Washington, where things actually get worse. We need to be able to enforce the present water agreements, or change them.
Our water laws are out of touch with the present day reality of millions of people living in the desert. Simply put; the first to waste the water should not be the ones to have the water.
2. Since Southern Nevada can't... or at least won't... go without water – we need to find another source. The Ocean seems like a good place to look – and I understand that , due to Global warming, the sea level is going up. For that very reason, I would think twice about constructing a big desalination plant too close to the coast. It might end up underwater. However, there is another option that has barely been considered.
SNWA could mass produce a fleet of barges with cruise ship desalination units, available off the shelf, powered by wave energy – that could be built as needed. The fresh water generated could be made available to California as a trade for a bigger allotment of the Colorado River.
The primary argument against this is that desalination is too expensive. Let me remind you that the price of desalination is dropping. It is far cheaper than just a few years ago, and the technology keeps improving. A report from SNWA showed desalination as just slightly more expensive than the proposed pipeline network. What the report didn't show is that the pipeline network relies on coal fired power plants. It is inevitable that the price of coal will rise – but the price of waves will always be free. Eventually, wave powered desalination will be cheaper. It may already be. Of course, if you consider all of the costs to the effected communities and environment, there would be no question. When you consider all of the real world costs, desalination is already cheaper than the pipeline.
3. Conservation. Conservation. Conservation. A fifth of the world's population survives on less water in a day than you use to flush your toilet – once. To these people, we waste a huge amount of water. But, it would be silly for me to ask anyone to live like they do. You won't, and I don't blame you. My point is that when we talk about conservation in Las Vegas, anyone who has ever been there knows that water conservation is not at the top of their priority list. So much could be accomplished.
The good news is that Southern Nevada essentially recycles almost all of the water that goes down their drains. So, conservation of water used indoors is not that big an issue.
What is a big issue is what goes on outside. Most of the irrecoverable water losses are due to evaporation. Since almost no farming exists in Las Vegas, almost all of these water losses are from luxury uses of water – lawns, pools, lakes, fountains, etc. If Southern Nevada could get genuinely serious about desert landscaping and conservation of water used outdoors, they wouldn't need more water.
4. We need to invent less thirsty crops. That's right. Southern Nevada needs to get into the farming business. Don't expect Southern California's farmers to finance crop development when they can just get Colorado River water for next to nothing.
The technology to perform high tech selective breeding (called super-organics by Wired magazine) could be funded at UNLV by taxes levied on new construction in the Southwest Desert. Since UNLV is not significantly funded by the big agricultural companies, the school's researchers would be more independent than established agricultural programs at other universities. This is important because the big agricultural companies are all focused on Genetically Modified Organism research – because they can patent GMOs. Since selective breeding has been around for thousands of years, you can't patent a super-organic organism. This may not be a directly profitable effort, but if we focus on the water we'll all save, it sure is. The technology for the new crops could be given away for free. The big agricultural companies may not like the competition, but I'll bet they'll be glad to utilize the technology. And the Californians who been taking more than their share? They just might not want as much water.
So, those are my recommendations – enforce our water agreements, find less environmentally disastrous sources of fresh water, and reduce our waste.
SNWA has tried to convince us that the pipeline network is the only viable option for decades into the future. And politically, it is the most expedient. Conservation, in Las Vegas, has been an uphill battle for SNWA. Desalination doesn't directly get SNWA more water. And the courts are failing Nevada at Hoover Dam.
SNWA must feel like they're between a rock and a hard place. But that's no reason to go out and make things worse. And, in the long run, drying up Nevada is not going to be good for us.
None of the options I have suggested are decades away, if we start now. All of these suggestions will have to be implemented eventually. And the price of not doing them now will be overwhelming.