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Nevada considers capping water use for homes in Vegas

Proposed legislation comes amid crisis on the Colorado River, where major reservoirs have fallen to dangerous levels

A sprinkler waters a golf course in Las Vegas. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Lawmakers in Nevada are considering new rules that would give water managers the authority to cap how much water residents could use in their homes, a step that reflects the dire conditions on the Colorado River after more than two decades of drought.

Among the Western states that rely on the Colorado River for sustenance, Nevada has long been a leader in water conservation, establishing laws that limit the size of swimming pools and ban decorative grass. Residents now consume less water than they did 20 years ago.

The latest proposal would, for the first time, give the Southern Nevada Water Authority the power to shut off water use for single-family homes that consume more than half an acre foot of water — or about 163,000 gallons — per year. Average residential consumption for the water agency, which serves the Las Vegas metropolitan area, has been about 130,000 gallons per year, according to spokesman Bronson Mack.

About 20 percent of residential water users — in a region of some 2.3 million people — already use more than half an acre foot of water in their homes. These tend to be larger properties, with big lawns or other landscaping that requires extensive irrigation, Mack said.

But even if the legislation passes, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has not decided how it might enforce the rule and does not plan to take action right away. Mack said putting limits on water use is another tool that helps prepare Nevada to handle future cuts in water usage on the Colorado River if the drought persists.

“This is just another step in the Southern Nevada Water Authority making sure that it is prepared to respond to the extraordinary drought situation that we’ve been experiencing on the river,” Mack said.

The dwindling supply of the Colorado River has pushed its major reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — down to dangerous levels, where they are at risk of dropping to the point that hydroelectric plants could no longer produce power or water could be blocked by the dams from flowing down the river.

To avoid those disaster scenarios, the Biden administration has called on the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to cut usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s average annual flow. Negotiations over the past year have failed to reach a consensus, with six states, including Nevada, suggesting one approach; while California, which uses more of the river than any other state, offered a competing plan.

The federal government could impose mandatory cuts on the states if no agreement is reached in coming months.

Of the seven basin states, Nevada has the smallest allocation of Colorado River water, at 300,000 acre-feet per year. But that allocation is crucial for the state, and particularly the Las Vegas area, where about 90 percent of its water comes from the river.

If the water level in Lake Mead drops another 22 feet in elevation, Nevada would be “subject to future cuts of an unknown magnitude,” Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said during a Monday hearing on the proposed water legislation.

“The stark reality of our current situation is what we are marking as the driest 23 years of the last 100 may very well be the wettest 23 years of the next 100,” Pellegrino said. “We don’t know what the future holds but we know one thing for certain: and that is that we will need to continue to use less water.”

Other cities in the West, including Las Vegas, impose higher rates on those who consume the most water. Last year, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Southern California began installing “flow restrictors,” small metal disks that reduced water flow to a trickle, on some homes that had already been fined and repeatedly exceeded their water allotment.

The residential limits in Nevada are just one provision in a bill intended to save water by various means. Other provisions would provide funding for the thousands of homes on septic tanks to connect to the sewer system — which filters and recycles water back into Lake Mead — as well as imposing new rules for efficient sprinklers and approved uses of grass.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Howard Watts (D), said he grew up near Lake Mead and watched it diminish over the course of his life.

“We’ve seen over the last few years, over and over again, the managers of the Colorado River being surprised at how quickly things have gone downhill,” Watts said in an interview. Since the state legislature only convenes every two years, “If we don’t do anything now, we don’t have the option really to do anything for two years,” he added.

During Monday’s hearing, which focused on the provision about transitioning from septic tanks to the sewer system, representatives for Las Vegas, the surrounding county, environmental groups and chamber of commerce officials all expressed support for the bill.

Opponents cited concern that they would be forced to pay large sums to connect to the sewer system and abandon their septic tanks — even if some funding assistance was provided.

“This is too much of a burden for these targeted homeowners,” Michele Tombari, a resident of Clark County, said during the hearing.

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