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April 18, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: WATER:

Leave the venerable Colorado River be

Water authority says renegotiating Nevada’s take won’t increase our share because climate change is slowing the flows

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SAM MORRIS / LAS VEGAS SUN file

A seven-state agreement signed 80 years ago gives Nevada 300,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River.

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Nevada’s share of the Colorado River is so small that it seems only logical that a rewriting of the 80-year-old law that divvies up the river would go our way.

The Colorado River Compact, after all, allocates Nevada a paltry 300,000 acre-feet of the river’s water, by the far the smallest amount among the compact’s seven U.S. states.

Still, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy wants to leave the agreement alone.

At an Oct. 28 Brookings Institution event, Mulroy said she is going to make the case “whenever and wherever I can” that the key to the region’s water future can’t be found in any renegotiation of the compact.

The reason: Nevada is unlikely to benefit from any attempt to change it, according to Mulroy and Kay Brothers, the water authority’s deputy general manager.

“I don’t think we’d get any more water. In fact, I think we would lose water,” said Brothers, explaining that the law was written during a particularly wet period and that climate change has further sapped an over-allocated river. “When they allocated, they gave away 15 million acre-feet (a year). We know the flows are much less than that.”

With climate change affecting the snow pack that melts into the river, its flows in coming years are expected to decrease.

So, given that it is a shrinking water supply, Southern Nevada would have to fight just to keep its share of the river.

And here’s the clincher: All seven states would have to agree on the new allocations.

Although population growth in Southern Nevada over the past 100 years is a compelling argument for more water, states such as Utah, Colorado and California that have experienced and continue to experience their own population growth aren’t likely to give up water they might need one day, or in some cases already do.

So, if the compact were to be renegotiated, no state is likely to gain water.

“States would actually lose water ... or at the best stay the same,” Brothers said.

In fact, Sierra Club Southwest Regional Representative Rob Smith said that’s the reason the compact should be reopened — to carve into every state’s allocation to leave more water in the river for wildlife.

“The big question is not ‘Who gets what?’ but whether there is even enough to go around,” Smith said.

Smith, like Brothers, said all the states should fear that they would end up with less water.

Brothers said the water authority’s good working relationships with the other Colorado River Basin states, which have not always been so friendly, are more likely to bear fruit than a contentious renegotiation effort.

For two decades, the authority has drawn the same amount of water from the lake as it puts in from its wastewater treatment plant in addition to the 300,000 acre-foot allotment.

More recently the agency has negotiated plans to draw water from the Virgin and Muddy rivers through Lake Mead, to store water it doesn’t use in reservoirs in California and Arizona and to use water it saves by lining canals or fallowing fields.

So, yes, Southern Nevada got ripped off when the compact was signed in 1922. Which means its water managers will have to get creative to keep Las Vegas wet.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to give up on rewriting the agreement is a more philosophical one: It’s time for Southern Nevada to let go of its anger and come to terms with the reality of 300,000 acre-feet.

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