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Las Vegas deserves some credit

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Let’s be real. Despite your recent story on Nevada, the world of water has changed of late and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) gets a good portion of the credit (HCN, 9/19/05: Squeezing water from a stone).

SNWA reinvented water in the Southwest, changing a nastily competitive situation from the "whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ " of legend to a cooperative model in which everyone has a seat at the table and people negotiate like grown-ups instead of like squabbling children. As a result, since 2003, southern Nevada has decreased its water use by 52,000 acre-feet (one-sixth of Nevada’s share of the Colorado River). At the same time, it has added about 150,000 people. No other American community can match that conservation record.

And regardless of the hullabaloo over groundwater in the Great Basin, in the Southwest, groundwater is a side issue, a hedge against future hard times. The real issue is the "Law of the River," the 1927 Colorado River Compact. Since its enshrinement, the Compact has favored agriculture and ranching over urban use. As a result, 3.8 million of the 4.4 million acre-feet that California receives ends up in three rural agricultural districts. In a state where urban economic activity exceeds that of even the enormous agricultural industry by exponential factors, such an arrangement makes no sense.

We should devise a new Colorado River Compact, one that no longer inhibits job growth in urban areas. A new Compact could begin by assigning the federally legislated water allocations on the basis of existing law. Prior commitments and legislatively mandated uses would come first. Then the rest of the water could be divided up among stakeholders, with preference going to the most economically efficient uses.

The funds this water generates would be divided among those who gave it up. In that way, two social goods would occur: The people who gave up the water would be fairly and justly compensated, and the water could create good jobs and prosperity for people who until now have been left out of the American dream.

Nobody should be forced to give up their water. Nor should anybody be able to stymie economic progress for their own selfish purposes. There is a happy medium, and we can achieve it.

Hal Rothman
Las Vegas, Nevada

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