Seven states, including Nevada, that rely on the Colorado River have been instructed by the federal government to cut back as much as two to four million acre-feet of water usage or face federal penalties in the face of the ongoing drought affecting the American west.
It’s a far cry from conditions over a century ago, where flooding from the river led to the formation of the Salton Sea in California as well as the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border. Today, the Salton Sea is drying up while the Hoover Dam has held less water than at any other point in history.
The mounting water crisis in Nevada has reached a point where the state supreme court has greenlit a landmark plan for Eureka County irrigators that would aim to address sustainability issues by forming a new water conservation plan.
Previously, Nevada irrigators operated on a priority system for water laws where “senior” claims preceded “junior” claims when it came to amount of access, but the new plan prescribes a reduction in water use for all irrigators over the course of the next 35 years.
The major policy shift highlights the urgency of water conservation in the state as it faces the consequences of the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 water allocation agreement between states that had sorely overestimated the amount of water flowing out of the Colorado River.
While climate change and a bigger state population have contributed to the impending water shortage in Nevada, advocates argue that the real culprit for low water supplies comes from wasteful use and negligence on this issue from legislators.
In Diamond Valley, irrigators have been allowed to pump twice as much water as is sustainable for aquifers, with no significant policies introduced by legislators aimed at curbing excessive water use.
What makes water conservation a difficult issue in Nevada lies in the legal bureaucracy of water allocation, usage rights, and the ability to transfer or sell surplus water supplies. The complicated details of water use create an issue where rights holders are incentivized to use up their entire water supply, or face forfeiture of their ownership rights, creating a use-it-or-lose-it system that essentially promotes excess water use.
Advocates argue that solving Nevada’s water shortage doesn’t come from turning off a faucet or taking quicker showers – what lies at the heart of the issue is political inaction and outdated frameworks, such as cheap water rates subsidized by local governments in arid and dry states that provides nearly no economic incentive to practice any water conservation efforts.
Speaking on the groundwater reduction plan and its shift from past water plans, Associate Chief Justice James Hardesty said, “we are of the belief, however, that given the arid nature of this state, it is particularly important that we effectuate the plain meaning of a statute that encourages the sustainable use of water.”
“The [Groundwater Management Plan] here is a community-based solution to the long-term water shortages that befall Diamond Valley,” Hardesty noted.