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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: