Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
December 20, 2023
Long before the artificial fountains of the Las Vegas Strip, people were attracted to the valley by its natural wetlands and springs that bubbled up from deep underground.
Those springs dried out after decades of urban development, but water managers are slowly trying to restore one important wetland corridor in Southern Nevada known as the Las Vegas Wash.
Now the Las Vegas Wash wetlands, a 12-mile-long channel that feeds most of the valley’s excess water into Lake Mead, is getting a $20 million boost in federal funding.
On Tuesday, the U.S Department of the Interior announced more than $51 million in funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for 18 projects in eight states to restore and protect aquatic ecosystems, including the Las Vegas Wash wetlands.
Water managers say the new project will create additional wetlands to help filter urban runoff and provide important wildlife habitat in Southern Nevada for native species, including the federally endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and Yuma Ridgway’s rail, the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, and the endangered razorback sucker.
“The project will improve water quality and help protect the spawning area and endangered Razorback sucker in the Las Vegas Bay,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in Las Vegas Tuesday. “The work to restore and protect habitat for fish and wildlife also helps mitigate the impacts of drought and potential flood events and this project here at the Las Vegas Wash is a great example of that.”
Funding for the project will be used to build a low dam across the wash to combat erosion and control water flow on the channel. The project will also fight erosion by removing invasive tamarisk and revegetating the wash with native shrubs, trees, and grasses.
Erosion in the wash has increased due to growing urban runoff from the sprawling Las Vegas metropolitan area. The wash channels more than 200 million gallons of highly treated urban runoff and stormwater to Lake Mead each day, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“We experience more and more erosion and that means the wetlands that did exist here were degraded throughout time. We’ve been slowly restoring those as we add these erosion control structures,” said Courtney Pellegrino Deputy General Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority during Tuesday’s announcement.
Decades ago, the flows of the wash created more than 2,000 acres of wetlands. By the 1990s, however, only about 200 acres of wetlands remained. Despite degradation of the wetlands, the wash currently supports more than 900 species of plants and animals living in Southern Nevada.
“There are not many things that we get to do related to water that are not controversial here in Southern Nevada. We joke that everyone likes water conservation until they’re the one that has to conserve, but this is one of the few community projects that I think we really do get nothing but support for,” Pellegrino continued.
Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee joined Touton at the Las Vegas Wash Tuesday to announce the new funding.
“Southern Nevada is also one of the fastest growing regions in the United States and it means that water quality and conservation will always be at the forefront of our concerns,” Lee said. “More people means more water. More water means more runoff and more runoff means more erosion, which is why this funding is so critical, why we need to safeguard this precious resource more now than ever.”
Since 2002, Southern Nevada has seen a 48% decline in water usage per person. Additionally, more than 40% of water use in Southern Nevada is recaptured and returned to Lake Mead.
But Lee warned that more must be done in Southern Nevada to protect water sources, “especially as we continue to deal with this historic drought in the Southwest.”
“Many people when they think of infrastructure, they think of roads and bridges and airports. But we know in the Southwest that water infrastructure is such a vital piece of that puzzle,” Lee continued.
In a statement, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said the funding will “allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to take necessary steps to create additional wetlands and improve conditions for wildlife.”
Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen both credited the Biden administration and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which they helped draft and pass into law, for the Las Vegas Wash project funding. In a joint statement, both senators highlighted legislation they recently introduced to provide additional federal funding to support conservation projects across the Las Vegas Wash.
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