Great Basin Water Network

  The Pipeline
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  Groundwater Development Project

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  Frequently Asked Questions

    Overview: These FAQ's provide some of the answers to common questions about the Groundwater Development Project (GWDP) proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). (View map). Because Las Vegas is almost totally dependent on the Colorado River for its water, and in light of the ongoing drought and over-appropriation of the river system, these FAQ's also address questions about the long-term viability of the Colorado River system.

    To help users with additional information about the SNWA's Groundwater Development Project and the Colorado River System, we have included references [links] throughout this webpage. [e.g. SNWA's Needs Statement]. And to better understand all of the complexities associated with the project, we recommend reading these FAQ's sequentially. We have also included acronyms, references, and online resources to support these FAQ's. [Note: links in these FAQ's open in new browser window]

FAQ Question Index [Click Plus Sign to view 40 FAQ's]

About SNWA's Groundwater Development Project

1. Who is the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN)?

The Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) is composed of organizations and individuals committed to the careful assessment of water projects and their environmental, social and economic consequences. GBWN's mission is to protect locally sustainable water uses, natural resources and the public interest through communication, research, science, education, litigation and advocacy for water in the extended Great Basin.

We are urban and rural, ranchers and farmers, counties and communities, Native American tribes, hunters, anglers, hikers, conservationists, tourists, and businesses who believe that sustainable water use is essential for the survival of all parts of the Great Basin, including Nevada and Utah. GBWN is an all-volunteer 501(C)3 not for profit organization.

2. What about the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA); what do they do and what are their responsibilities?

SNWA was created in 1991 through a cooperative agreement among seven water and wastewater agencies in Southern Nevada, (i.e., Big Bend Water District; City of Boulder City; City of Henderson; City of Las Vegas; City of North Las Vegas; Clark County Water Reclamation District; and the Las Vegas Valley Water District).

As noted in SNWA's 2014-2018 Water Conservation Plan [ 22 Page PDF], these agencies provide water and wastewater services to nearly 2 million Southern Nevada residents and over 40 million annual visitors.

  • managing the region's current and future water resources;
  • managing all water supplies available to Southern Nevada through an approved water budget;
  • managing regional water resources and conservation programs;
  • ensuring regional water quality meets or exceeds state and federal standards;
  • allocating and distributing regional water resources among its member agencies;
  • managing water-resource planning;
  • presenting a unified position on water issues facing Southern Nevada; and
  • building and operating regional facilities to provide a reliable drinking water delivery system to all member agencies.

While these activities cover a wide range of responsibilities, it's important to recognize that SNWA does not have the direct authority to regulate water use by end users or to establish customer rates. However they do establish wholesale rates and baseline fees.

3. What is the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Groundwater Development Project?

SNWA is proposing to build a large pipeline from Las Vegas to rural eastern Nevada, along the Utah border, to pump 27 billion gallons of water (83,988 afy) every year, at an estimated cost of $15.5 billion (2011 dollars). As currently planned, the project would include a 260 mile buried pipeline (3.5 to 7 feet in diameter); up to 80 groundwater production wells covering 4 desert valleys (Spring, Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar Valleys); and 350 miles of power lines. The estimated $15.5 billion cost also includes Snake Valley (see below.)

[View map]
[See project details]

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4. What about SNWA's proposal to pump groundwater from Snake Valley, is that part of the 83,988 afy approved by the Nevada State Engineer?

SNWA's pipeline project also includes plans for groundwater pumping in Snake Valley, (Snake Valley straddles the Nevada/Utah border and its waters are shared by both states). SNWA still retains groundwater applications in Snake Valley in the amount of 50,679 afy (acre feet per year), but those applications have not been considered or approved by the Nevada State Engineer (NSE).

As discussed elsewhere in these FAQ's, proposed groundwater pumping in Snake Valley was not included in the BLM's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) decision for SNWA's Groundwater Development Project. This is because the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act (P.L. 108-424) requires that the states of Nevada and Utah reach an agreement regarding the division of water resources in the basin (Snake Valley) before water can be diverted. As of January 2015, the two states have not reached an agreement on the use of water from Snake Valley. NOTE: By excluding Snake Valley in the EIS, the scope of SNWA's pipeline project was reduced (i.e., from 5 basins to 4, and from a proposed 300 mile pipeline to 260 miles.) Nevertheless, It's worth mentioning that SNWA's original plan called for pumping 176,655 afy (57 billion gallons) from the 5 basins in eastern Nevada (Source - BLM DEIS, Chapter 2).

5. So what about water volumes and water consumption, how much water is 83,000 acre feet per year (afy) and what will it support?

An acre foot of water would cover an acre of land with a foot of water. 83,000 afy is the amount of groundwater SNWA has been authorized to pump from the four valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. That would support about 166,000 households in Las Vegas, (based on .5 afy per household per year).

6. What decisions are required by federal and state authorities? Is there an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Groundwater Development Project?

The Nevada State Engineer, as the chief water official in the state, grants the rights to the water to be conveyed in the proposed SNWA pipeline.

Certain federal laws(1) are activated when major development projects are proposed on public lands. (Note: in Nevada about 85% of the land is public.) With respect to SNWA's Groundwater Development Project, the BLM was obligated under these laws to assess the environmental impacts of granting a right-of-way (ROW) application to SNWA for the 260 mile buried pipeline and associated facilities (wells, roads, pipelines, and power lines).

In response to SNWA's ROW application, the BLM completed a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that evaluated both SNWA's original proposal as well as several alternative schemes. This EIS was followed by a Record of Decision (ROD) issued on December 18, 2012. (Record of Decision [ROD] 62 Page PDF)

The ROD grants SNWA the right-of-way to construct, operate, and maintain the main conveyance pipeline and related facilities to support the future pumping and transport of groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. Groundwater would be pumped from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar Valleys based on a modified version of Alternative F as described in BLM's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

It's important to note that BLM has no administrative or approval authority over the appropriation of water rights in Nevada; that's the state's jurisdiction. Also, the approval of water-rights applications by the State Engineer does not grant access rights to construct infrastructure for water development on or across Federal lands; that is the BLM's role. Hence, SNWA needs approvals from both the BLM and the State Engineer, and while those approvals have been granted in four valleys, they are currently being appealed through litigation. Specific details on the status of ongoing litigation are posted on this website.

    (1) National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), and other applicable Federal laws and regulations; Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2004; Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA)

7. What environmental Impacts are anticipated from the Groundwater Development project?

The potential environmental impacts from groundwater pumping are fraught with uncertainty. Many believe that pumping ancient groundwater would destroy natural ecosystems far beyond the physical locations of the pipeline right-of-way and the yet undefined well fields. It's been suggested that declines in groundwater elevations will in some areas exceed 200-feet, resulting in large scale ground subsidence over hundreds, if not thousands of square miles. Such subsidence would threaten local water supplies and could dry up thousands of acres of shrubland. Groundwater pumping would directly impact wetlands and springs resulting in the loss of native vegetation and aquatic flows, and this would have detrimental effects on hundreds of native species of plants and animals.

By SNWA's own admission, the project would dry up or "adversely affect" more than 5,500 acres of meadows, more than 200 springs, 33 miles of trout streams, and 130,600 acres of sagebrush habitat for sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn. (Source)
Owens Valley, CA

Most importantly, as water tables plunge by up to 200 feet in the pumped basins, significant plant die-off will generate tons of windblown dust. BLM's own environmental analysis disclosed that thousands of tons of new dust per year would be generated from loss of native vegetation. Particulate matter in the form of fugitive dust will also pose health impacts on downwind communities. And fugitive dust will impair the scenic and visual quality of the impacted basins and surrounding areas, including the Great Basin National Park and Congressionally-designated Wilderness Areas. (Source – 12 Page PDF)

In addition, 306 miles of new power line, pumping stations and pipeline related infrastructure would result in irretrievable damage to the visual effects to regional landscapes.

8. What about hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and backpacking; what are the likely long-term recreational impacts anticipated from pumping millions of gallons of water from in eastern Nevada to Las Vegas?

The impacts to outdoor recreation in eastern Nevada (an area that is remote, pristine and unique) from massive groundwater pumping will be significant. In all, there will be permanent ecological damage that for all practical purposes will be irreversible. Subsidence and dust will ruin the quality of the landscape for hikers, birders, backpackers, and campers. Losses of vegetation will severely reduce the land's carrying capacity for wildlife, likely resulting both in reduced hunting quality and the issuance of fewer tags for big game including elk, antelope, and deer.

One of Nevada's six native trout species, the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout (BCT), thrives only in the drainages of Snake, Spring, and Steptoe valleys. The GWDP is approved to pump Spring Valley and has applications for Snake Valley, meaning potential threats to the spring-fed creeks in two-thirds of the waters where this fish lives. Anglers seeking Nevada's Native Fish Slam would have trouble finding the BCT in a few decades under this scenario.

9. Aren't there mitigation plans to prevent/halt/reverse ecological damage to natural resources caused by groundwater pumping?

As part of the Right Of Way and in accordance with federal regulatory guidance, the BLM, along with other federal agencies, the SNWA and the Nevada State Engineer have committed to develop mitigation plans. These plans will be developed to attempt to rectify (i.e., repair, rehabilitate or restore) identified ecological damages to the environment caused by the GWDP. However, the $15.5 billion project cost does not include funds for mitigation.

According to documents, this would be accomplished by conducting regular measurements and identifying trigger levels for mitigation "based on the best scientific information available." This would be done through installation of monitoring wells in aquifers; running constant-rate aquifer tests; conducting groundwater chemistry sampling; doing spring and stream discharge measurements; and producing annual monitoring reports.

Unfortunately, there are known uncertainties about fixing large-scale water depletions of underground aquifers. Monitoring deep groundwater aquifers is problematic at best, since aquifer systems don't have instantaneous response times. In comments on the Final EIS and ROD, the Center for Biological Diversity made this abundantly clear. As noted in their comments, scientists have found a delayed response time between observations of groundwater impacts (depletion) and changes to surface environments. More importantly, once groundwater pumping is halted the "recovery to the pre-pumping state occurs very slowly - perhaps over a millennium for large systems." Hence, once impacts to surface resources are identified, it may well be too late to rectify/rehabilitate damages to local and regional ecosystems.

A complicated "three tiered" decision-making process involving federal, local and state agencies has been proposed to assess and mitigate potential damages to ecological systems. The real questions is: when impacts are identified, will there be the political will to shut down the pumps and turn off the water, effectively letting a rate payer funded 15.5 billion dollar pipeline run dry, or run far below engineered capacity? Of note, one of the many issues being litigated by parties opposed the SNWA's Groundwater Development Projects concerns the establishment of standards for mitigation.

Reference Documents
[BLM Com Plan Framework]
[Litigation of Mitigation Plans]

10. Why are 80 groundwater production wells needed and where would they be located?

According to SNWA, the actual number of production wells will depend upon the results of exploratory well drilling and individual well yields. For planning purposes, SNWA has assumed that the average well yield will be approximately 800 to 1,000 gallons per minute (gpm). Based on the permitted water for each hydrographic basin, and adding a 20 percent factor for additional wells (for maintenance and operational flexibility), the following represents SNWA's estimated number of wells per valley: Spring Valley: 52 to 65 wells, Cave Valley: 4 to 6 wells, Dry Lake Valley: 10 to 11 wells, and Delamar Valley: 5 to 6 wells.

See Map of Proposed Well Location

11. How much groundwater is actually available for SNWA to pump and pipe?

While much of the groundwater in the respective basins is already owned and in use, and some water basins are already over-appropriated (more water rights/use than available supply, leading to depletions), the amount of available groundwater is a matter of controversy. Experts and attorneys on both sides of the issue disagree about the availability and sustainability of groundwater in the respective basins. In 2013, a Nevada district court judge voided SNWA's groundwater rights in the four valleys analyzed in BLM's above referenced EIS. (See: FAQ below "Ongoing Litigation & Water Rights"). Most importantly, local ranchers know that pumping affects local water tables, and they believe that a reliable supply does not exist to justify sustainable groundwater withdrawals.

12. What are costs of the water pipeline, and who pays?

The Groundwater Development Project was estimated by SNWA's financial experts to cost $15.5 billion in 2011, including construction, financing, and operation. However, that does not include any dollars for the estimated costs for monitoring and mitigation of impacts identified by the BLM. For comparative purposes, in Owens Valley, Calif., where Los Angeles pumps rural surface waters for use in LA, the cumulative dust suppression mitigation cost alone totals $1.2 billion. For LA residents, the cost to control dust in Owens Valley totals 2 months per year of the average residential water bill.

Regarding the cost of SNWA's Groundwater Development Project, it's been suggested by some that residential customer rates in southern Nevada could climb to $90/month or more to help pay for the project. Business water rates would also increase, and rents would likely go up for those who do not directly pay for water. These increases are essentially permanent.

While it is difficult to get exact figures from SNWA, investigative journalists and other government watchdogs have found that over $100 million dollars in public funds have already been spent on this project, including the acquisition of land for water rights (including ranches that are now operated by SNWA), scientific and cost studies, litigation, public relations, and lobbying.

Finally, if SNWA were to become insolvent and unable to conclude construction of the Ground Water Development Project (GWDP), and or meet financing and operational costs, (e.g., mitigation for dust control, expanding well fields, operation and maintenance, etc.), its member agencies and potentially Nevada taxpayers would be responsible for compliance with the conditions of the Right-Of-Way grant issued to SNWA by the federal government. As noted in BLM's Record of Decision (Page 12) for the GWDP, "As a political subdivision of the State of Nevada, SNWA is subject to Nevada's Local Government Budget and Finance Act. Pursuant to these statutes, the Nevada State Tax Commission can take over operations of a local government that is experiencing a severe financial emergency."

13. What are some realistic alternatives to SNWA's Groundwater Development Project?

Sustainability needs to be the foundation of any strategy for water management in the arid west. This is not the approach currently taken by SNWA's Water Resource Plans. As the agency responsible for securing water for the Las Vegas Valley, SNWA needs to communicate the limits it faces in expanding the water supply, signaling the need for responsible growth and a carrying capacity beyond which the city's longevity will be threatened.

Investments in conservation should be maximized and evolve as new technologies and techniques emerge. SNWA's cash-for-grass program is a good start, along with the other water saving initiatives now being undertaken, such as water pricing, conservation incentives, water efficiency requirements for new development, and public education. Nevertheless, the fact remains that per capita consumption must be further reduced to fully address sustainable water conservation in Las Vegas. Indoor conservation, long avoided due to return flow credits, needs to be better supported. The fewer gallons people use per day, the more people can be sustained without needing to augment supply. It's simple math. Residential reuse of gray water is another common-sense conservation policy that SNWA has habitually opposed.

If Las Vegas is bound on continued growth, then at some point the community must consider other alternatives sources of water supply. An obvious approach would be paying for an exchange of Colorado River water with desalinated Pacific Ocean water. Costs associated with desalination are declining and now affordable, given new filtering technologies and renewable energy (solar and wind). For more about desalination see this reference.

Finally, the laws governing the Colorado River, many of which are approaching 100 years of age and which are contributing to the over-allocation of its water, should be revamped to address changing priorities for water use (i.e., changes in water use for agriculture, municipal/industrial, and recreation).

More on this subject — from the public press

14. What can we do to learn more, what actions can we take?

Contact your city and county elected officials. They need to hear that you as voters and ratepayers oppose the pipeline project. The message? "Just say no. The pipeline project will be a costly economic disaster for southern Nevada ratepayers."

Write letters to the editor. Letters are an easy and influential way to get your message to decision makers and to your community.

Join the Great Basin Water Network Facebook page and follow us on Twitter to be kept current as well.

Visit the Great Basin, bring your friends and family to see its beauty, and support the Snake Valley Festival. The Festival is held the third weekend in June in Baker, Nevada. The Festival has a water theme, celebrates community, and raises money for the water fight. Put it on your (water) bucket list!

Litigation — What's Happening?

15. Who's involved in the litigation over SNWA's Groundwater Development Project?

SNWA's plans to convey millions of gallons of groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas have generated key legal challenges at the state and federal level. In addition to SNWA (the project proponent), some of the major players in the process include the public, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the State of Nevada (specifically the Nevada State Engineer), several affected local governments in Nevada and Utah, Indian tribes, the State of Utah, the Mormon Church, the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the Nevada Supreme Court, and the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN).

Simeon Herskovits, Advocates for Community and Environment
16. What about legal challenges to water right applications filled by SNWA with the State Engineer — what's happening?

In response to water right applications by SNWA, the State Engineer (NSE) has permitted groundwater pumping in Spring, Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar Valleys. (Groundwater applications are pending before the NSE in Snake Valley.) The NSE has sole authority to issue permits for water rights including points of diversion and water volumes.

After reviewing SNWA's applications and conducting public hearings, in March 2012, the NSE granted SNWA 83,988 acre-feet per year (afy) in four valleys: Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar. In April 2012, several parties, including the GBWN filed petitions for judicial review of these rulings.

On December 10, 2013 a decision by Judge Estes in Nevada's Seventh Judicial District Court overturned the NSE's ruling granting the above-mentioned water rights. Among other stipulations, the judge's decision requires a recalculation of water volumes available from the respective basins.

Appeals of Judge Estes' decision were subsequently filed by SNWA and the State Engineer; the appeals along with petitions for writs of mandamus were subsequently denied by the Nevada Supreme Court, i.e., on February 06, 2015 and May 21, 2015 respectively. As it now stands, SNWA and the State Engineer must comply with the Judge Estes's order and the requirement to demonstrate that SNWA's proposed groundwater mining and export operation will be sustainable, and will not cause impermissible impacts on the environment and existing water rights holders, such as ranchers, farmers and local business.

Read all of the decision on this website
Read GBWN's Press Release
Press Account [May 23, 2015]

17. What are the likely outcomes of ongoing litigation of SNWA's Groundwater Development Project?

Unfortunately, it's too early to predict the legal outcome of SNWA's proposed groundwater development project. At the state level, the Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled on appeals of Judge Estes' district court decision sought by SNWA and the State Water Engineer; the appeals were pursued to overturn Estes's decision issued on December 10, 2013. As it now stands, SNWA and the State Engineer must comply with the Judge Estes's order and the requirement to demonstrate that SNWA's proposed groundwater mining and export operation will be sustainable and will not cause impermissible impacts on the environment and existing water rights holders.

At the federal level, GBWN's has appealed BLM's Record of Decision and Final EIS [62 Page PDF]. GBWN's appeal is pending action in federal district court in Las Vegas. Participating parties challenging the BLM's decisions include the Center for Biological Diversity, GBWN, Nevada and Utah local governments, Tribes, businesses, non-profit organizations and a long list of citizens who have joined the suit. For all the details about litigation involving SNWA's GWDP, see this website.

Press Account [May 30, 2015]

Water Conservation in the Las Vegas Valley - What's Happening?

18. How much water is consumed in Las Vegas and where does it come from?

Southern Nevada depends on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its water-resource needs. Local ground water resources make up the difference. Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet per year (afy) from the Colorado River. With return-flow credits (see below), Nevada can actually divert more than its 300,000 afy apportionment, as long as there are sufficient return flows to ensure the consumptive or net use is no more than 300,000 afy. In 2012, Las Vegas used a total of just under 477,000 afy or 219 gallons per person per day. (Source: SNWA Water Conservation Plan Appendix C [23 Page PDF])

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19. What about the drought, what impact has it had on SNWA'S ability to pump water from Lake Mead to Las Vegas?

The current 15-year drought is the most severe since recordkeeping was initiated on the Colorado River (i.e., in 1906). Today, Lake Mead is more than half empty as water levels have dropped by almost 100 feet over the past decade. The white "bathtub ring [see photo] has emerged as a stark reminder of the drought that has enveloped the western United States.

Within the next decade, water forecasts conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation drought show that Lake Mead's water level is at risk of falling below 1,000 feet. If that happens, SNWA could no longer pump water from its existing two water intake systems at Lake Mead to deliver water to the Las Vegas Valley. To safeguard water availability, SNWA has taken two specific actions.

First, at a cost of $817 million, an underground tunnel known as the "third straw" was recently completed to pump water from deep beneath Lake Mead. Second, the agency has embarked on the construction of a lake level pumping station that will replace its existing pumping facilities should Lake Mead fall below 1,000 feet. At a cost of $650 million, the new lake level pumping station will ensure continued access to Las Vegas's primary water source even if the drought persists.

20. What are Return Flow Credits, and how do they work?

All indoor water use in the Las Vegas valley that reaches the sanitary sewers is reclaimed. The water is then treated and is either returned to the Colorado River (return flow credit), or delivered for other municipal uses, such as irrigating golf courses, power generation, etc. In accordance with Bureau of Reclamation return-flow credit policy, the SNWA receives credit to withdraw one acre-foot of water from the Colorado River for every acre-foot of Colorado River water that is treated and returned. As a result, there is often debate over the significance of indoor water conservation and the calculation of per capita use. SNWA prefers to look at net or consumptive use, a lower figure that takes Return Flow Credits into account.

Press Account [June 13, 2015]

21. How effective is SNWA's water conservation program?

SNWA believes it has one of the most dynamic and comprehensive water conservation programs in the nation (See: 2014-18 SNWA's Water Conservation Plan, page 19 [22 Page PDF]). Indeed, the agency has had considerable success with water conservation initiatives. Southern Nevada reduced water use from approximately 347 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) in 1990, to approximately 220 GPCD in 2012.

Its flagship conservation program is a turf-reduction rebate program commonly known as "cash for grass." This program started in 2003 by offering rebates to businesses and residents who remove grass. Under the program, the water authority pays $1.50 per square foot of grass removal for the first 5,000 square feet, then $1 for every additional square foot. However, it now allows residents to replant lawn if they refund the rebate money.

More Photos

22. What about the 60+ golf courses in Las Vegas? Are they doing anything about water conservation?

Every time a golfer steps to a tee in Las Vegas, that one hole required 139 gallons of purified sewage water, just for that one golfer that day. That means that a foursome in Las Vegas, playing 18 holes, will use as much water as typical family in the U.S. uses in a month. (Source)

Nevertheless, more than 900 acres of grass have been removed from Southern Nevada golf courses in the last 12 years, conserving more than 2 billion gallons of water. According to SNWA, the amount of grass that has been taken out of golf courses since the agency's water conservation program was initiated would cover nine regulation golf courses. As of the end of 2013, SNWA paid out about $25 million in rebates for golf course turf reduction.

Still, because of a 160 percent increase in population from 750,000 to almost 2 million in 22 years (a 160% increase), the amount of actual water usage – measured in acre feet per year – has increased from about 291,000 afy to 476,000 afy. (Source: SNWA Water Conservation Plan Appendix C [22 Page PDF])

23. What is SNWA doing about educating the public about water conservation?

SNWA recently published an eight minute video addressing the ongoing drought. While the video does address local conservation programs, it also promotes water supply diversification strategies such the eastern Nevada groundwater development project. Of note, the video avoids any mention of pending litigation and public controversy about SNWA's Groundwater Development Project. The video also fails to link urban/suburban growth to existing limits of water supply from the Colorado River System.

Ironically, SNWA spends millions of dollars on public education campaigns and newsletters encouraging a variety of conservation techniques at the same time its member agencies have cut funding for water rule enforcement and SNWA has vocally opposed policies that would promote indoor conservation or graywater capture systems.

24. So what about water consumption, how does Las Vegas compare with other communities?

No two communities consume the same amount of water. Different weather patterns, economies, water sources and dependencies, and other factors produce different consumption rates. With the ability to treat and reuse wastewater, return flow credits (discussed elsewhere in these FAQs) have become a matter of debate for the calculation of per capita water use.

Precipitation rates also vary from city to city and region to region; Los Angeles sees an average of 15 inches of rain a year, Phoenix get only 8, and Albuquerque's rate is 9.5 inches. The number for Las Vegas is a minuscule 4 inches annually. In Portland Oregon, for example, the per capita water use runs about 83 gallons a day. (It rains a lot in Portland, so there's low need for supplemental watering of lawns.) The highest rates of total water use in the United States are in the West along with the highest rates of municipal water use per capita (See map: Per capita water use for selected Western cities, including Las Vegas). While the trend in public-supply water use has declined slightly since 1985, the West consistently exceeds the United States as a whole in per capita water use. (Source USGS)

Comparatively, the city of Phoenix consumes 218 gallons per person a day, while Las Vegas runs even higher at 222 gallons per person per day. (Source).

The ‘Water Witch’ — Pat Mulroy Preached Conservation While Backing Growth in Las Vegas [June 2015]

25. What is SNWA's near-term water conservation goal?

In 2009 the SNWA Board of Directors adopted a new water conservation goal (to be achieved by the year 2035) of 199 gallons per capita per day (GPCD).

The Colorado River System

For more on this topic read "Killing the Colorado" — by And for the very latest information and data on the Colorado River System please see the Colorado River Basin Open Water Data Initiative (OWDI)

26. How many people depend on the Colorado River?

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide drinking water to nearly 40 million people across the West. The water from the river is used to irrigate some 5.5 million acres of farmland and sustain a multibillion-dollar recreation industry including nine national parks (view map).

27. How much water storage is available within the Colorado River system?

Within its reservoirs, the Colorado River system can store approximately 60 million acre feet, or nearly 4 years of average natural flow of the river.

28. What states in the west depend on water flows from the Colorado River and what about future demands?

Under a 1922 water compact, negotiators parceled out 16.4 million acre-feet (maf) between the Upper Basin states [Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico] and the Lower Basin's states [Arizona, California, and Nevada]. The allocation of water among the lower basin states (7.5 maf) is governed under a 1964 US Supreme Court decree [8 Page PDF] (Arizona v. California). Under this decree the Lower Basin states are now consuming their full 7.5 maf allocation ( 4.4 to California, 2.8 to Arizona, and 0.3 to Nevada).

While the Lower Basin states are using all of their respective allocations, the Upper Basin states are using about 60 percent of their share. More importantly, all four Upper Basin states have plans underway to tap more in the future. This is important since a major study conducted in 2012 by the federal Bureau of Reclamation [34 Page PDF] projected the annual gap between existing water supply and demand on the Colorado River system will grow to 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060.

29. What about the tribes, do they hold water rights on the Colorado River?

Yes. Federally recognized tribes hold rights to a significant amount of water derived from the Colorado River system, ( approximately 2.9 maf of annual diversion). In many cases, these rights are senior to other uses and thus representing these rights is a critical component to assessing future water demand on the river system (Source).

Related Story, HCN [May 2015]
Indian Tribes Are Water Dealmakers [July 2015]

30. What about water use trends (urban, agricultural, industrial) – what's happening?

Municipal and Industrial (MI) water use has increased over time as a result of continued population growth throughout the basin states (view basin states map). The basin states include some of the most rapidly growing areas of the United States and typically have experienced growth rates far exceeding the national average.

Agricultural water use has been relatively stable in recent years, although some declines are related to the recent drought as well as supply limitations, and pressures from urban encroachment due to land use changes and water transfers. Continued population growth in the region is expected to continue creating additional pressures on agriculture lands and water use.

Graphic, Historical Colorado River Water Consumptive Use 1971 – 2008
Press Account [May 01, 2015]
What You Need to Know About the Water Crisis in the West [June, 2015]
California’s Drought Is Part of a Much Bigger Water Crisis [June, 2015]
Colorado Rive, a growing concern for Yuma farmers [July, 2015]

31. How much Colorado River water is used by agriculture?

Agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of all the water diverted from the Colorado River, so even a small shift in demand can have a significant impact on the system.

Related Information
How federal dollars are financing the water crisis in the West [June 2015]

32. What about the effects of climate change, what's the long-term forecast for the Colorado River System?

According to the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, the long-term impact of climate changes on the Colorado River system will be significant. Future demands for irrigation water along with accelerated evaporation at reservoirs could result in an 8 percent increase in irrigation demand on the lower half of the Colorado River Basin, and a 10 percent increase in evaporation from Lake Mead. These changes were predicted out to the year 2080 based on a projected temperature increase of about 5 degrees across the western region. (Source)

Top – Lake Mead
Bottom – Lake Powell

33. How much water does Lake Mead lose to evaporation?

Lake Mead is the nation's largest man-made reservoir, and each year it loses roughly 800,000 acre-feet of water to evaporation under the dry wind and hot sun of the Mojave Desert. That's more than double the amount of Colorado River water used annually in the Las Vegas Valley.

34. What about the recommendation to "fill Lake Mead First" — what is this about?

There are two major storage reservoirs on the Colorado River: Lake Mead and Lake Powell. With drought, both sit roughly half empty, and both experience massive evaporation due to the large surface area of the water. It's been argued by some that if you lower Lake Powell to minimum levels and let Lake Mead fill fully before raising Powell, it could save up to 300,000 acre-feet of water a year (afy) that now seeps into Lake Powell's banks. 300,000 afy is equivalent to Nevada's entire annual allocation from the Colorado River. Filling Lake Mead first could be accomplished by designating Lake Mead as the primary water storage facility on the Colorado River system. Lake Powell could be kept close to the elevation of 3,490 feet above sea level - high enough to allow seasonal flow variations, flood control, sediment distribution, power generation, reservoir-based recreation, and a more natural water flow regime through the Grand Canyon.

Opponents of the idea say the proposal would compromise recreational opportunities at Lake Powell by leaving boat ramps stranded, forcing marina shutdowns, and depriving millions of visitors the joy of visiting Lake Powell. Both lakes have seen exactly that happen as water levels have declined over the last 15 years.

It's worth noting however, that water stored at Lake Mead is subject to evaporation rates twice that of Lake Powell owing to the lower elevation (1,100 feet above sea level), increased surface area, and hotter temperatures. Also, if reduced power production at Glen Canyon dam occurs, it would affect over five million customers within the states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

35. Are the lower basin States workings together to address the ongoing drought on the Colorado River?

Yes. In 2014 the States of Arizona, California, and Nevada along with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation entered a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU [20 Page PDF]) to take new additional actions designed to help avoid serious impacts resulting from sustained drought in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River. The purpose of the MOU is to generate additional water in Lake Mead. The goal is to develop between 1.5 and 3.0 maf for storage in Lake Mead between 2014 and 2019.

Projected water saving volumes for the respective states are: Nevada 45,000 acre-feet (af); Arizona, 345,000 af; California 300,000 af; and 50,000 af by the Bureau of Reclamation. In all, the MOU calls for a savings of 740,000 af, which is roughly equivalent to 10 feet of water (measured by elevation) on Lake Mead.

More form the public press [PDF - 10MB]

36. Is there a point at which water rationing begins?

Water rationing for the lower basin states would be triggered when the water level at Lake Mead is measured at 1,075 feet above sea level; that's the elevation when the first round of rationing would impact Arizona and Nevada. ( See: 2007 Dept. of Interior ROD ). This decision mandates that if Lake Mead levels fall past defined "shortage triggers" at 1,075, 1,050, or 1,025 feet, water allocations are significantly reduced for both Arizona and Nevada, with the amount of shortage reduction increasing progressively at each trigger. (More info. Dept. of Interior). SNWA claims that through its conservation initiatives, it could withstand the first reduction in allocation without passing restrictions on to customers.

37. What's the short-term drought forecast for the Colorado River System?

Fifteen years of sustained drought on the Colorado River has caused water levels to drop significantly. The current projection is for Lake Mead to drop to 1,074.60 by June 2015. This could trigger a shortage as early as 2016, or potentially in 2017, depending on precipitation and runoff levels over the following months.

Press Accounts [April 2015]

Press Accouint - Lake Mead watch: six inches from the level that triggers cutbacks [June, 2015]

Press Accouint - Lake Mead water outlook improves [August 2015]

Press Account - Lake Mead to get above-average flow of Colorado River water [April 2017]

Press Account -Dry start to winter prompts ugly forecast for Colorado River [January 2018]

38. How much electricity is produced from Colorado River flows?

Hydropower facilities along the Colorado River provide more than 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, helping to meet the power needs of the West and offset the use of fossil fuels.

Recent Press Accounts [April 2015] — Western drought steals clean energy along with fresh water at power plants [PDF]

39. Has anyone defined the real facts about what must be done to safeguard the Colorado River for future generations? Yes thankfully, the Colorado River Research Group, "an independent, scientific voice for the future of the Colorado River," has published a summary of guiding principles that address charting a new course for the river. It's nothing short of inspiring!