Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is in a politically difficult predicament. They have been forced to mismanage Nevada's water supply by local powers that be – under water laws that were written in a different age. They are now stretched beyond their financial capacity to maneuver for water they won't need for decades – if ever.
However, there is a window of opportunity for them to do the right thing, get what they want in the long run, and supply Southern Nevada with plenty of moderately priced water – without having to take the blame for wasting Las Vegans' money and Nevadans' resources.
The Rural Nevada/Great Basin SNWA watergrab is expected to cost somewhere between 3 billion dollars and 20 billion dollars. SNWA simply doesn't have the money. But they do have cheaper alternatives.
The Yuma Desalination Facility has shown us that desalination is a very cost effective way for Southern Nevada to get more water from the Colorado River. The price of desalination has dropped precipitously in the past 20 years. And it has become obvious that if SNWA were not encumbered by their commitments to take water from Rural Nevada/Great Basin, desalination would be a no-brainer.
SNWA could, as needed, incrementally build off shore desalination plants off the coast of California and trade that water (with California) for more water from the Colorado River. The costs would be in the millions, rather than the billions for the watergrab pipeline network and the vast number of wells (required to distribute the damage in Rural Nevada).
However, SNWA has already committed over 70 million dollars towards the Great Basin water grab – by purchasing vastly overpriced farms and ranches in Spring Valley. Also, SNWA has already spent millions drilling wells all over Rural Nevada – and millions on PR convincing Las Vegans that they are so desperate that taking water from the rest of Nevada is the only option. Politically, there is no turning back – no matter how bad those decisions were and no matter how much more money will be wasted. Unless, of course, there is no more money.
The reality is conditions have changed. Desalination costs have dropped and the Great Basin is facing the same drought conditions as Las Vegas. Abundant water from the ocean has become cheaper than scarce water from the desert.
The only rational thing to do is follow the cheapest, most plentiful water.
But politics and Nevada water law are not rational. Nevada water law effectively states; “first in use, first in right.” Which is why Las Vegas applied for Rural water rights over 20 years ago. If they hadn't of applied for the water, somebody else would have – and Las Vegas would have lost the opportunity for that water forever.
What Nevada water law has inadvertently created is a water rush – much like the gold rush of 1849 – but this time it's municipalities vs. corporations rushing to take as much as they can.
Since Nevada water law so conveniently defined away Native American water use as not really use, the water is there for the taking. All the water grabbers have to do is come up with some “use.” Which means, here in the real world, Nevada water law effectively reads; “the first to waste the water can have it for free.”
So, Las Vegas had to apply for Rural Nevada water rights – or lose them. And then they had to drill wells, or it wouldn't look like they were serious. And then they had to buy ranches, because that's where most of the water is. And then they had to lie to Las Vegans about how desperately they need water – or the whole house of cards would fall.
So now, SNWA is in a predicament. Las Vegas isn't growing like it used to – and it may never again. Consequently, SNWA doesn't have nearly the money to throw around they used to. Which means there is a serious risk that those water rights they have applied for in Rural Nevada just might be slipping away.
SNWA is not looking invincible any more. SNWA has lost two major court cases involving the watergrab. And then, of course, there's this little matter of proving to the Nevada State Engineer that they can actually “use” the water – when Las Vegas isn't growing any more... Oh, and one more thing. Possibly the most important point of all: The people of the Las Vegas Valley just might figure out that they are being scammed. The Las Vegas Valley is close to being full. Much of the water from the watergrab won't likely go to the Las Vegas Valley. The big secret about the watergrab is that Las Vegans are being conned into paying for water for other communities. That's right. The people of Las Vegas just might figure out that they are being conned into spending billions of dollars to provide water for elsewhere. This whole scheme is just about to blow up in SNWA's face.
So, what's a quasi-municipality to do?
It's too early for SNWA to privatize. Nevadans would figure out the scam.
It's too late to rely on desalination. Las Vegans would realize how much money has been wasted.
And it's too risky to just keep plowing ahead. Besides, SNWA simply can't afford the costs.
So, why not do the right thing?
What Nevada really needs are more responsible, sustainable, and respectful water laws. Right now, Nevada water law just slices up the pie between those powerful enough to take it. This is no way to manage water in the desert.
Nevada is acting like nobody in the future will need water. Where is the slice of pie for future generations?
Nevada is acting like the environment doesn't matter. Which is about the stupidest thing anyone could possibly think. Without an Environment, there will be NO Economy.
Nevada is acting like the Natives who have lived here sustainably for thousands of years have gone extinct. It's as if Nevada water law was written with the intent of no one ever living here sustainably again.
Nevada is acting like craps are more important than crops. I'm not against gaming, but let's face it; gaming doesn't create anything. The recent economic downturn should have taught us that gaming should not be the cornerstone of an economy.
Nevada is acting like only the cities matter. But in a healthy functioning Democratic/Republic, it is the rights of the minority that determine the viability of the Democracy.
Nevada is acting like tourism in Las Vegas is more important than tourism in the rest of the State. The Rural water grabs are just big economies cannibalizing smaller ones. Nothing is really gained, while Nevada loses its economic diversity.
Nevada is pretending that the world won't notice. There is a very real risk of a worldwide informal boycott of Las Vegas over the watergrab.
There is a critical need to rewrite Nevada water law. And SNWA has the power, influence, and the backing of Las Vegas to reform Nevada water law.
So, what's in it for SNWA?
They don't have to build the watergrab pipeline until they desperately need it. And they can feel safe that others won't take the water away from them.
The primary goal of Nevada water law should be long term sustainability. This is the desert. We don't have that much water. And what ground water we do take will immediately kill the wildlife that depends upon it. So, it only makes sense that we save as much as we can for all of those who cannot vote yet (because they haven't been born yet), those who do not have as many votes (because they live where the water is), and those who cannot ever vote (because they are plants and animals).
Nevada water law should make it more difficult to take “unused” water from the deserts. Not that municipalities, such as SNWA, shouldn't be able to apply for future rights to the water. In fact, they should. And if there ever becomes a time when those municipalities are literally desperate, they could have first option to export it.
Even though most of the Lake Mead/Colorado River panic is hype, there is a remote possibility that the Colorado River could dry up. However, the worst way to deal with this is to help Southern Nevada to continue to grow until it consumes all the the Colorado River allotment and the Rural Nevada watergrab water... If the Colorado ceases to flow, there will be no other options but to do without. At least with water saved underground in Rural Nevada, Southern Nevada would have something to turn to in the worst case scenario.
We need to remember: The Earth is in one way like a bank. It has resources that have been saving up for millions of years. You have never, and will never hear a financial advisor say to you to go pull out all your money from your bank and spend it as fast as you can. And you have never, and will never hear a business advisor say to let the bank robbers just take what they want. Taking everything now is not planning.
Nevada water law needs to be more responsible – because some people need laws to keep them responsible.
It's up to us. Do we want a water rush, water grabs, Rural devastation and displacement, followed by extreme water scarcity and outrageous water prices? Or do we want sensible water use, responsible growth, and a sustainable future with a healthy environment?
SNWA can have what they really want – by doing the right thing. Southern Nevada can have water banked for future use (if ever there were a time of legitimate desperate need). Southern Nevada can have cheaper water with desalination – without the embarrassment of the cancellation of the watergrab (it would just be postponed indefinitely). And SNWA would look like the environmental champions they should be by being the force behind the rational reform of Nevada water law.