L.A. Region Pays for Water from Drought-Stricken Lake Mead

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Nearly five drought-stricken months after John Glionna at the Los Angeles Times wrote about how “anemic Lake Mead has hit a historic low,” Las Vegas water authorities agreed to sell a rather hefty supply from what's left in the reservoir to the Los Angeles area.

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) will pay around $45 million a year to receive 150,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply 300,000 homes. That water will come via the Colorado River and is half of Nevada’s annual allotment. Southern Nevada Water Authority SNWA) will send its “surplus” Lake Mead entitlement downstream through Hoover Dam.

Authority general manager John Entsminger said the deal was a “win-win” for both states, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Associated Press reported that Entsminger estimated the water transfer would lower Lake Mead around 9 inches. Nevada Public Radio quoted him as saying, “Lake Mead would be at the exact same elevation it would have been whether this deal is entered into or not.” And the Review-Journal said it would cause a drop of 1.5 to 2 feet.

Every inch counts because the lake is currently about three feet above the 1,075-foot level that triggers automatic cuts to Nevada and Arizona. If the lake hits 1,045 feet, California has to immediately give back 75,000 feet.

Technically, the water isn’t being sold to California. It’s being banked for future access. Nevada and California have had deals like this since 2004. Las Vegas has done a bang up job at conserving water the past few years, and the SNWA has accumulated all sorts of surplus credits that it loans to others. The water can be reclaimed if water supplies run low.

The SNWA has banked 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the years, more than 205,000 acre-feet of that in the California Water Bank. District officials say if they didn’t bank water they would lose the 3% that evaporates annually. Another consideration is that should Lake Mead drop so low that SNWA can’t draw water from it—and that could be soon—the district could call in its banked water.  

Meanwhile, Lake Mead is at around 38% capacity and in the words of Glionna, “resembles a mammoth desert mud puddle evaporating after a hard summer's rain.” The sprawling lake, created when Hoover Dam was built on the Colorado River, is the largest reservoir in the United States but hasn’t been at full capacity since 1983.

An editorial in the Review-Journal last week stated the obvious, “The Las Vegas Valley can't sustain its population and economy without access to the Colorado River water stored in Lake Mead.” Which is why the editorial board rejoiced at the announcement that the water district’s new $817-million intake pipe beneath the lake had been completed. Long after Arizona, California and Mexico are barred from access to a depleted Lake Mead, they would be able to suck water from the bottom.

“The third intake provides Southern Nevada with water supply insurance that is the envy of the rest of the West,” the editorial crowed.

 –Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Las Vegas, Los Angeles-Area Agencies Ink Water-for-Cash Deal (by Ken Ritter, Associated Press)

Los Angeles Will Borrow Water from Las Vegas (by Mike Pearl, Vice)

SNWA Could Lease Water to Drought-Stricken California (by Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Lake Mead Water Level Falls to a Landmark Low, and Is Likely to Get Worse (by John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times)

Board Approves California Water Bank Agreement (Southern Nevada Water Authority)

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