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What Does A Hotter, Drier Climate Mean For Southern Nevada's Water?


After a year with good snowpack levels in the Rocky Mountains, some would say parts of the West are clear of the historic drought that lasted nearly two decades. 

However, that is not the opinion of water managers around the West.

“We are far from out of the drought,” said Colby Pellegrino, the water resources director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “The way we look at drought is how much water is in the reservoirs because that’s where we get our water from.”

Lake Mead, one of the two largest reservoirs along the Colorado River, is still only at 39 percent of its capacity. In addition, Pellegrino said the Colorado River, as a whole, is only about 54 percent full, which up just 5 percent from last year.

“When you hear we had a great year - yes - we had a great year but it was only enough to boost our storage 5 percent," she said, "So, we need quite a few great years in a row to get out of the existing drought.”

It is that reality and the changing climate that prompted all seven states that use the Colorado River to sign the Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year

The plan is a way to keep the federal government from stepping into the issue.

“The first federally declared shortage occurs when Lake Mead hits elevation 1,075 on January 1," Pellegrino explained, "We’re not projected to have a meaningful chance of getting there now because of both the Drought Contingency Plan and the hydrology increase until at least 2021 and probably 2022.”

Under the plan, both Nevada and Arizona are required to make additional contributions to the storage in Lake Mead, which means taking less water out.

“Next year, we will operate under this condition where Nevada is required to leave a little bit of extra water on the river to help benefit Lake Mead’s elevation, as will Arizona,” she said.

The good news for Southern Nevada is that it has already done an excellent job of conserving water and is currently using about 225,000-acre-feet of the 300,000-acre-feet allotted to us. 

“We’ve done a really good job building a buffer against these shortages,” Pellegrino said.

Since 2004, Southern Nevada has done a number of things to conserve water from restricting turf in new developments to paying people in older neighbors to tear out their turf.

Now, the SNWA is bringing back its so-called water cops to keep an even closer eye on conservation efforts. The enforcement officers were eliminated during the recession but Pellegrino says as the community has grown the agency felt it was time to once again have a visual water enforcement presence.

The question is as the climate of the region gets hotter and drier will those efforts be enough?

“As far as our water supply, that is not something that keeps me awake at night," Pellegrino said.

She said the SNWA has run numerous scenarios looking at all kinds of possibilities from slower population growth and more water in the system to high growth and less water.

“Essentially, right now, all of the scenarios that we project we have a reliable supply of water to meet this community for at least the next 50 years,” she said.

All of which has put the controversial pipeline project on the backburner, for now, she said. The project would pump water from rural counties northeast of Las Vegas to Southern Nevada.

Pellegrino said when she first started at the agency in 2002 many people thought the project would be well underway by now because of the dire need but, “through conservation, we’ve significantly shifted the need for that pipeline into the future.”

The pipeline project now sits on a list of contingency plans along with desalination, water transfers and exchanges, and brackish water reclamation projects.

All of those projects are expensive and Pellegrino said just managing the amount of water we use is much cheaper and has proven successful.

“I don’t think there is another state that can boost using less than our allocation than we have for as long as we have,” she said.

Now, under the new Drought Contingency Plan, other states are having to model after Nevada's efforts to keep more water in the reservoirs. Pellegrino noted that Nevada uses 1.8 percent of the allocated water in the Colorado River so protecting it will require efforts from all the states.

Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources, Southern Nevada Water Authority 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.