Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger spotlighted at a Senate hearing conservation programs the agency has implemented to reduce water usage that could help other western states in the face of historic drought.

“I think conservation is key here and it plays a great role in the story of what we have done in Nevada,” Cortez Masto said. 

Her comments came at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday on solutions to the drought raging in the western U.S.

Entsminger said Nevada has shown that conservation can help preserve the remaining water.  

“The solution to this problem — and by solution, I don’t mean refilling the reservoirs but rather avoiding potentially catastrophic conditions — is a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable,” Entsminger said. “Nevada’s efforts are a case in point.”

Despite a population increase of 800,000 people over the last two decades, the region’s water consumption last year remained 26 percent less than what it was at the turn of the century, he said, an achievement attributed to “paying customers to replace grass with drip-irrigated plants, setting mandatory irrigation schedules and strictly enforcing waste water” regulations.

SNWA started its conservation efforts in 2002, still the driest year in the recorded history of the Colorado River, the water source for the southern part of Nevada, when only 25 percent of normal inflows came in. That’s when the agency launched its Water Smart landscape program, which pays businesses $3 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with drip-irrigated plants and trees, up to 10,000 square feet a year, and $1.50 per square foot after that.

“We’ve now taken out enough turf in the Las Vegas Valley to lay an 18-inch wide piece of sod all the way around the circumference of the globe,” Entsminger said. 

SNWA also has a tiered rate structure so that those who use more water pay more for it and the funds go to conservation programs. 

Almost 93 percent of the West is experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions, and more than 70 percent of the western U.S. is experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton noted at the hearing citing the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought has taken a toll on the Colorado River, which provides water to Southern Nevada  — SNWA serves about 2.2 million Nevada residents — along with six other states and Mexico. The river flows into Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border. The lake is the nation’s largest reservoir, but it has sunk to its lowest level since the 1930s and is only about 28 percent full. 

Touton said the drought would require states to cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water usage next year. The Bureau of Reclamation has called on the seven states, which divide up a total of about 15 million acre-feet, to come to an agreement on apportioning the cuts by August, when the bureau will release its projections used to set annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

But Entsminger said Nevada is well-positioned to absorb those cuts, given the state’s conservation programs. The governor signed into law last year legislation to replace ornamental turf. 

In 2021, Southern Nevada consumed 242,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water and SNWA expects to use about that much in 2022, according to SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack. The figure is below the state’s annual 300,000 acre-feet allocation and less than the 279,000 acre-feet allotted to the state following drought-spurred cuts implemented at the beginning of the year.

SNWA also updates its 50-year assessment of water needs on an annual basis. The authority projects that the population of Southern Nevada will grow from its current 2.5 million residents to 3.8 million in 2076. The state uses about 112 gallons per person per day and projects that it will need to reduce that to 86 gallons by 2036 to accommodate the growth.