Nevada is considering giving the water board powers to restrict residential use if the Colorado River dries up

Carson City, Nevada • Nevada lawmakers are considering a notable change by allowing the water board, which manages Colorado River service for Las Vegas, to restrict the use of single-family homes in the desert city and surrounding county.

It’s another potential step in a decade-long effort to ensure one of the driest metropolitan areas in the US has enough water. In Las Vegas, lawns are already banned, new swimming pools have a size limit, and the water used in homes is recycled.

While some western U.S. agencies are linking increased water use to higher costs, Nevada may be the first to give a water agency — the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the power to monitor what comes out of residents’ faucets in a state Restrict law to about 30,000 gallons above average consumption. It’s aimed primarily at the top 10% of water users, who use 40% of water in the residential sector, said spokesman Bronson Mack.

“It’s a worst-case scenario plan,” said bill sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas, of the housing restriction. “It ensures we prioritize the must-haves for a home. Your drinking water, your basic health and safety needs.”

The far-reaching omnibus bill is one of the most important to be brought before lawmakers this year in Nevada, one of seven states that depend on the Colorado River. Increasing drought, climate change and demand have pushed key Colorado River reservoirs, which depend on snowmelt, to their lowest levels on record.

Lawmakers heard testimony Monday night for the bill, which also includes converting many homes with non-recyclable sewage septic tanks to the county’s recyclable sewage system in the coming decades. It’s also setting up a program to pay at least 50% of the transition as they try to secure more state and federal funding to help with the transition.

Water Board officials stressed during the two-hour hearing that the housing caps would not be used immediately, but rather if conditions got worse. The cap would be around 160,000 gallons per year — an amount consumed by about 20% of the agency’s clients — with the average single-family home consuming nearly 130,000 gallons per year, according to the agency.

The agency has not yet decided how it would implement or enforce the proposed limits, Mack said.

The residential occupancy restrictions drew broad support from water policy experts, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and jurisdictions within the agency’s borders, while some southern Nevada residents who testified via video from Las Vegas resisted.

“(With) a single family home, you have to consider: how many adult family members live in that home?” said Sarah Patton of Las Vegas. “We have adult children currently living with us. That is more water consumption.”

Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90% of its water supply. Nevada has already lost about 8% of that supply due to mandatory cuts that will be implemented if the flow continues to decrease. Most residents have not felt the impact because the Southern Nevada Water Board recycles much of the water used indoors and does not use the full allotment.

Nevada lawmakers two years ago banned ornamental grass in office parks, in street verges and at entrances to housing developments, a move other cities later adopted. Last summer, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, limited the size of new single-family swimming pools to about the size of a three-car garage.

By the next legislative session in 2025, drought conditions could be much worse, Watts said, and “we need to decide beforehand which uses to prioritize.” The longer-term goal, however, is for the other Nevada to lead the way in using the Colorado River’s dwindling supply responsibly—even as deeper cuts threaten.

“It’s a sign for all other sectors in the Colorado River Basin that we won’t wait for others,” Watts told lawmakers about the potential single-family home ceilings. “We are taking the lead and working to reduce our water use.”

The bill’s main opponent was the conversion of households with septic systems to the sewage system, a major conversion that would prompt many households to divert their sewage. Some Clark County residents were dissuaded from the option of abandoning their septic system or worried about the cost.

“This is too much of a burden for these targeted homeowners,” said Michele Tombari, who, like others, was fond of her septic system and didn’t want to switch. “If you want us to change what’s already been approved, what we’ve already paid for, you have to pay 100% for us to change that.”

(John Locher | AP) In this April 15, 2015 file photo, a man photographs the fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Snow that has inundated northern Nevada and parts of California is only serving as a temporary respite from dry conditions. Some states in the Colorado River basin have become stuck on how to reduce water use.

Water from the Colorado River is largely used for agriculture in other basin states: Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. Municipal water accounts for a relatively small percentage of total consumption.

As populations grow and climate change makes future supplies uncertain, policymakers are paying close attention to all available water supply management options.

Santa Fe, New Mexico uses a tiered cost structure, with prices escalating sharply as residents reach 10,000 gallons during the summer months.

Scottsdale, Arizona, recently notified residents of a community outside of city limits that it could no longer provide them with a water source. Scottsdale argued that action was needed as part of a drought management plan to ensure enough water for its own residents.

Elsewhere in metro Phoenix, water authorities are not currently discussing limiting residential use, Sheri Trap of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said in an email. However, cities such as Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe have said they will reduce usage overall.

AP writer Susan Montoya Bryan provided coverage from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Nevada is considering giving the water board powers to restrict residential use if the Colorado River dries up

Justin Scacco

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