Nevada is allotted only 1.8 percent of the Colorado River water used by the seven Colorado basin states and Mexico, but it is perhaps the state most reliant on its allotment. This comparatively small amount of water is the predominant water source for the Las Vegas Valley, where most of the state’s population lives. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), the region’s water wholesaler, has responded to this predicament with aggressive water conservation efforts. It also played a major part in Nevada’s negotiation of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), the seven-state agreement that was just signed into federal law. In this interview, SNWA General ManagerJohn Entsminger speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the new DCP legislation and what comes next.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
John Entsminger: SNWA did on-campus interviews during my third year of law school at the University of Colorado Boulder and ultimately selected me. I moved from Boulder to Las Vegas in 1999 to be SNWA’s environmental compliance and water resources attorney. I spent about 10 years in the general counsel’s office, working on in-state water resource issues, Environmental Protection Agency issues, Endangered Species Act issues, and Colorado River negotiations. In 2010, the then general manager asked me to move out of legal and onto the executive team. When she retired in 2014, the board of directors selected me to be the general manager of SNWA.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about SNWA.
John Entsminger: SNWA has seven member agencies, all of them water and wastewater utilities in southern Nevada. The region that we cover is essentially the Las Vegas Valley and some of the outlying areas of Clark County. Those seven utilities provide retail water and sewer services to 2.2 million people. We are responsible for the water supply of 76 percent of the population of the state of Nevada. SNWA is a wholesale agency. We build all the regional facilities, pump the water out of Lake Mead and treat it, and then deliver it at turnouts to the retail agencies. We coordinate regional conservation plans and we ensure the sustainability of the natural resources that we rely upon. We do all the resource planning for the region to ensure a 50-year water supply every year.
Joshua Dill: Why was the DCP needed?
John Entsminger: When the seven states that share the Colorado River entered into our first shortage plan under the 2007 operating guidelines, we thought the risk was much lower than we think it is today. We’ve seen the drought on the Colorado River deepen from 2007 to 2019. The risk of Lake Mead elevations falling substantially in the next 5–6 years reached a point that convinced all of us that we needed to put additional mitigation measures in place on top of the measures agreed to in 2007. The DCP is an overlay of additional measures that will be taken by the seven Colorado River states to prevent reservoir levels in Lakes Mead and Powell from reaching truly critical elevations.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the process by which the different parties worked out that plan.
John Entsminger: We first came together in a meaningful way in summer 2015. We not only looked
at the sort of hydrology we’ve seen on the river over the historical record, but we also drilled down into
the hydrology we have seen over the last 30 years and examined climate scientists’ predictions about the effects we will see on this river system over the next 50 years if temperatures increase as they’re projected to. With that sort of stress-test hydrology, we were able to assess the risk and to build a plan to systematically reduce that risk by collectively agreeing to leave more water in the system. I can assure you that that sounds simpler than it actually was, but for the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, 85 percent of the material agreements were finished by the end of 2015. Over the next 3–4 years, people worked within their states to figure out how they could leave more water in Lake Mead while still protecting their local economies and the environment.
Joshua Dill: Who provided input into what Nevada’s position should be?
John Entsminger: Nevada is unique among the seven states in that we don’t have an agricultural sector. There
is only one major user in southern Nevada. Of Nevada’s legal entitlement of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, SNWA has direct contracts for 272,000. There’s not much water that isn’t being used by SNWA. The planning process came down to our professional staff deciding what level of pain we could live with—how much water we could forbear from using out of our legal entitlements while still meeting our customer demands—and then briefing the elected officials who serve on our board to make sure they were on the same page. We negotiated from that position.
Joshua Dill: What else is distinct about Nevada’s situation as compared to those of the other Colorado River states?
John Entsminger: First, Nevada has far and away the smallest allocation of Colorado River water of the seven states and the country of Mexico. Nevada has a robust legal entitlement to 1.8 percent of the Colorado River water allocated to the seven states plus Mexico. SNWA is 90 percent reliant on that water source in our mission of providing 76 percent of the state’s population with water. Everybody’s got a stake in the river, but I would say that no state is more reliant on the river than Nevada is.
Second, even though we have only 1.8 percent of the river, we are blessed with a geographic location upstream of Hoover Dam. That allows us engineering solutions to the drought that nobody else has. By April of next year, we will have completed $1.5 billion in new water delivery infrastructure into Lake Mead that guarantees that we can take water out of the lake even at elevations at which the Bureau of Reclamation can’t release water downstream.
Joshua Dill: Now that the DCP has been passed, what actions will Nevada and the federal government carry out?
John Entsminger: I think that for all intents and purposes, the DCP will come into effect during the next water year, beginning October 1, 2019. What we will need to do is leave part of our legal entitlement of water in Lake Mead whenever its water level is below specific elevations. Today, it is at 1,088 feet above sea level, which is under the first trigger level of 1,095, meaning that we would need to leave 8,000 acre-feet of water in the lake that we otherwise would be legally entitled to take out. That’s our contribution to the plan. The amounts of water that the states need to leave in the lake increase as the lake drops. The federal government’s role is operating the system and keeping track of the accounting. Because of the Colorado River Compact, the states own all the water in the river. The federal government owns the dams and is responsible for operating the river in accordance with federal law. The DCP is a part of federal law, so it’s going to be the federal government’s job to make sure that everybody leaves the amount of water in the lake that they have agreed to and to enforce the special provisions that exist for accessing water at different times.
Joshua Dill: What would happen if the DCP were not implemented?
John Entsminger: It’s a matter of risk. According to the hydrologic modeling we were looking at, without the DCP, there’s an approximately 50 percent chance of Lake Mead falling to elevation 1,020 by the end of 2026. Elevation 1,020 is the elevation we all agreed we wanted to try to protect. At that level, there’s really not much water left in Lake Mead, and at elevation 1,000 things start to get truly dire. If there is a 50 percent chance of that occurring within the next 7 years without the DCP, the DCP cuts the probability of that happening to about 4 percent.
Joshua Dill: Are those levels bad just because there would not be enough water to supply the downstream states, or would they present engineering problems?
John Entsminger: At around elevation 1,000, there would only be about 5 million acre-feet of water left in Lake Mead. Right now, average annual releases downstream total about 9 million. There is only a little more than half of the current annual demand of Arizona, California, and Mexico left in storage at elevation 1,020. You don’t get to a real engineering problem until about elevation 900. That is when dead pool occurs and Reclamation can’t release water through Hoover Dam to downstream users.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about water conservation in your area and what SNWA is doing to reduce water use.
John Entsminger: Our legal entitlement to Colorado River water is 300,000 acre-feet a year. The maximum reduction under the 2007 guidelines plus our biggest DCP reduction would equal 30,000 acre-feet of water. That essentially means that our legal entitlement is reduced to 270,000 acre-feet of water. Last year, the 2 million residents of our area consumptively used only 244,000 acre-feet off the river, so Nevada has already preconserved all of the contributions that we’re likely to need to make under the DCP.
We have conserved water by aggressively limiting outdoor water use. Beginning in 2002, SNWA instituted
a drought plan that was then codified in city and county ordinances as regular water conservation measures. We spent around $230 million between 2002 and today to
pay people to take grass out to reduce outdoor water
usage. From 2002 to 2019, as our population increased by 46 percent, or by about 650,000 people, our per capita water use went down by about 38 percent and our aggregate water usage went down by 25 percent. That’s what allows us to confidently say, “We can make our contributions under the 2007 guidelines and the DCP, and still continue to support the vibrant economy of southern Nevada.”
On the water district side of the operation, we have a 10-year, $650 million capital project that is primarily focused on asset management. We have 6,000 miles of pipe in our retail system, and less than 5 percent of our water is unaccounted for, but we’re not satisfied with that. We want to drive that down to 4 or 3 percent.
Joshua Dill: Did you cut down on outdoor water use because it used a particularly large amount of water or because it was comparatively easy to reduce?
John Entsminger: We focused on outdoor use because indoor use doesn’t matter in southern Nevada. I mentioned the blessing of our geographic location upstream of the dam. We are practically on the shores of Lake Mead. If water hits a drain in southern Nevada, we treat it and put it back into Lake Mead; then we can take out the exact same amount again. We conserve and reuse 99 percent of water that is used indoors. The only way we lose water out of what is essentially a closed
loop is through outdoor irrigation, swimming pools, evaporative coolers, and other sources of evaporation. Our community’s maniacal focus on reducing outdoor water usage is aimed at guaranteeing that we have sufficient water resources in Lake Mead.
Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the future?
John Entsminger: Here in southern Nevada, we’re
going to have to do more. Our area is a world leader in municipal water conservation, but this is no time to be resting on our laurels. We still have 5,000 acres of spray-irrigated turf in this valley that is probably only walked on by the people who mow it. I’m not talking about soccer fields, schools, or good functional usage, I am talking about purely ornamental turf. That is not a luxury that our community can afford any longer. We’ve taken our rebates from $2 per square foot to $3 per square foot, and we’re ramping up our enforcement of ordinances to prevent water waste. Looking more broadly at the future of the Colorado River, everybody in every sector—agricultural, municipal, recreational, and environmental—is going to have to make do with less water. Nevada is leading the way in having a vibrant economy and using less water, but the entire basin is going to have to join in. It’s going to take real money and real political will for the entire sector to adapt to the warmer and drier future we see coming.