Sunday 22 August 2021 | 2 a.m
Las Vegas and southern Nevada get nearly 90% of their water from the Colorado River, which provides water to more than 40 million people in seven states and two countries. Las Vegas has been a leader in water conservation and household water use has declined, but this month, for the first time, the federal government declared a “level 1” shortage. on the river. This means Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River next year.
The Level 1 scarcity declaration highlights the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin; however, it came as no surprise. The past year has been the second driest year since records began in 1895, and the states that make up the Colorado River Basin are in a two-decade “mega-drought”. Climate change is playing a role, making an already bad situation worse. Scientists say that due to climate change, the Colorado River basin will become a constantly hotter and drier place. Compared to the last century, we have seen a reduction in flow equivalent to the annual water use of 14 million Americans, with half of that decrease being due to rising temperatures. Scientists predict that flows could drop another 10 to 40%. Already, Lake Mead – where Las Vegas stores its Colorado River water – is only 35% of its capacity and hasn’t been full since 2000.
Climate change and drought also exacerbate the risk of catastrophic forest fires in the basin, affecting communities, water quality and water quantity. Precipitation and snowmelt rush through forest-fire-marked landscapes devoid of vegetation to slow runoff, leading to erosion and sediment that clogs streams, damages water supplies, and destroys water. wildlife habitat.
There is a lot at stake for all of us. Less water for people means even less for the wildlife, trees, and plants that depend on rivers, streams, and groundwater to survive in Nevada’s barren landscape. It harms nature and our quality of life in the West.
The Colorado River can be a model of resilience and sustainability, but not without a concerted and significant effort from stakeholders in the region. Nevada has long been a leader in responsible water management, and stakeholders have developed solutions and are adapting to a drier future, but we all need to step up the pace as the river system has changed faster than we did not adapt.
Water issues are complex and require partnership and collaboration. The Nature Conservancy has worked in the Colorado River Basin for 20 years and appreciates the critical importance of partnerships in charting a sustainable and resilient future. We need to step up our efforts and think bigger and more creatively than ever to chart a sustainable path. Solutions should include reducing water use in all sectors, upgrading infrastructure, improving the health of forests, streams and rivers, and improving natural infrastructure to strengthen the supply of surface and groundwater.
Water users and managers across the basin need to work together – testing ideas, sharing knowledge and investing in short and long term solutions in order to have the greatest impact.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate has just passed is a good start. It includes investments to improve resilience to drought, sustainable water supply solutions and resilience to wildfires that set us on the path to improving the health of rivers and forests, and helping communities. to better resist the impacts of climate change.
Thanks, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen for supporting this bipartisan effort that recognizes in a bigger and bolder way than ever that investing in nature is a smart way to achieve clean water, resilient communities, healthy forests, fish and wildlife. habitats, clean air and a stable climate that we all need.
We look forward to seeing this momentum continue so that we can ultimately act on the larger scale needed to address the biodiversity and climate crises facing our communities. By proactively working together and planning for a warmer, drier future, we can increase flexibility and develop solutions to help us overcome a new reality.
Mauricia Baca is State Director of the Nevada Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Taylor Hawes is the organization’s Colorado River program director, which works with ranchers, municipalities, industry and state officials to develop local solutions that can serve as models for river systems.