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.

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