Is Las Vegas betting the Colorado River will go dry?

 

Las Vegas is a city that plays the odds, and if you want to know which odds to play, you need to follow the smart money. Unfortunately, that money seems to be moving toward building yet more dams that will drain yet more water out of an already oversubscribed Colorado River.

Unlike most cities in the Southwest U.S., Las Vegas depends completely on the Colorado River. If the river goes dry, Vegas goes dry, and so how the river is managed by the states upstream of Vegas will partly define the city’s fate. The Colorado River already has more water taken out of it than flows into it, and Lake Mead -- from which Vegas gets its Colorado River water -- is less than half full and dropping farther every year.

If we want to predict the future of the Colorado River, we can take a look at how the players around the Colorado River Basin plan to spend their money, especially the states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Wyoming recently went through a planning process in which the state decided that it needs “more dams.” It’s now planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to get more water out of Wyoming’s rivers, including the Green River, which feeds the Colorado.

Colorado is going through a “Water Plan” process right now that includes a discussion about taking more water out of the Colorado River and other rivers in the state, at an estimated cost of at least a billion dollars.

New Mexico just OK’d the Gila River Pipeline, a proposal to potentially spend up to a billion dollars to get more water out of the Gila, which flows into the Colorado River downstream. And Utah just went through a water-planning process where it proposes to spend up to $15 billion on new water-supply projects that would include taking water out of the Colorado River system. A high-ranking state official said, “It is necessary to put dams on all rivers in Utah.”

The folks downstream in Arizona and California are paying keen attention. In Arizona, most of the Colorado River water flows through the vast Central Arizona Project, whose director recently said, “It's becoming increasingly likely we'll see a shortage declared in 2017.” In a similar tone, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets half of its water from the Colorado River and is facing the worst drought in the state’s history, also recently warned about upcoming shortages.

Some back-of-the-envelope math puts the money these states are wagering on water at around $20 billion, all of which would further drain the Colorado River. On the other side of the equation, it’s absolutely true that all of these states, as well as their major cities and water districts, will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in water conservation and efficiency programs to lower their demand.

Las Vegas claims it’s spent $200 million over the past 15 years on not using water. What’s more, in the past year we’ve seen the first significant step to restore the Colorado River. Four large water districts (including Las Vegas) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation propose to invest “up to $11 million” in a “Colorado River System Conservation Program” that would work to keep more water in the river and Lake Mead. 

But if we look at the smart money in Las Vegas, something else is going on. Las Vegas’ Southern Nevada Water Authority is frantically drilling the “Third Straw” under Lake Mead at a cost of $850 million, racing to get its water out of the draining lake before it’s too late. And just two weeks ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recommended spending another $650 million on a new pumping station, just in case Lake Mead hits “Dead Pool.”

That’s $1.5 billion to plan for a worst-case scenario -- the death of the Colorado River.  In comparison, Las Vegas’ Water Authority is investing just a few million in the Colorado River System Conservation Program to keep the river flowing.

From Dec. 10-14, the Colorado River Water Users Association will hold its annual conference. The group is made up of all the states and cities and farmers in the entire Southwest; they amicably describe themselves as the “water buffaloes.” The theme of the conference is “Challenged But Unbroken: Sustaining the Colorado River.” Fittingly, the conference is set for Las Vegas, where everyone plays the odds for a living.

Gary Wockner, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News.  He is executive director of Save The Colorado River Campaign, based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.