Nevada is the nation’s seventh largest state with more than 110,000 square miles of land. It also is the driest state, averaging 9 inches of ran annually. Southern Nevada, where the state’s major population center is concentrated, receives an average of 4 inches of rain each year.
More than 70 percent of the state’s population resides in Clark County in Southern Nevada, which gets nearly 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Northern and Central Nevada draw water from other sources.
Las Vegas history
Located in Clark County, the Las Vegas Valley was home to Paiutes and Patayan Indians hundreds of years before Anglo-Europeans settled the area. They were sustained by bubbling artesian springs that fed a small stream and a grassy meadow, which inspired Spanish-speaking explorers to name the valley “Las Vegas” – or “the meadows” in Spanish.
In the 1800s, Las Vegas became a resting place along the Spanish Trail and a major campsite along the Mormon Road. It remained sparsely populated until the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (later known as the Union Pacific) laid tracks in Southern Nevada and designated Las Vegas as a water stop for its steam engines.
The railroad created the Las Vegas Land & Water Company to operate the first water distribution system in the valley. In May 1905, the railroad auctioned land, creating thetown site of Las Vegas. With groundwater as its sole source of water, Las Vegas continued to grow slowly.
Power and Water
The Hoover Dam project brought an influx of people to Southern Nevada from 1928 to 1936, and World War II brought the defense industry to the valley. Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Nevada received only 300,000 acre-feet of water, but the state’s leaders did not envision Southern Nevada would need more. Nevadans felt hydro-electricity was more critical than water and negotiated to secure one-third of the electricity generated by Hoover Dam.
In 1937, the dam was completed and the Las Vegas Valley began using some of its Colorado River allocation via a water pipeline built by a defense contractor. Southern Nevada began to overdraw its groundwater supply in 1962 with a population of 119,000. Design of the new Southern Nevada Water System, which treats and delivers Colorado River water to the valley, began in 1960, and the system became operational in 1971.
Current Water Use
The service industry dominates Nevada’s economy, accounting for nearly half of the state’s employment. The hotel, gaming and recreation industries support two out of every three service-related jobs. Mining also is a major industry, accounting for more than 10,000 jobs. Agriculture in Southern Nevada accounts for very little of the Colorado River use, although statewide agriculture accounts for 75 percent of water use.
In Southern Nevada, residential water customers use 57.9 percent of the water supply, with 14.3 percent for commercial/industrial, 7.9 percent for golf courses, 7 percent for resorts, 4.7 percent for schools and parks, 4 percent for common areas and 4.2 percent for other water use.
Nevada’s water law is based on the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation – the first to divert water for beneficial use acquires the priority right to use the water. Within the state, two interstate compacts govern surface water allocation. The California-Nevada Compact represents agreements between the two states over waters that rise in California and flow into Lake Tahoe and eventually into the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers and Pyramid Lake. The Colorado River Compact and the many laws and policies that make up the Law of the River.
Colorado River Commission and Southern Nevada Water Authority
The State of Nevada created the Colorado River Commission in 1935 to protect Nevada’s allocation of Colorado River water and the electricity generated from Hoover Dam. To manage the limited water resources, Southern Nevada’s major water and wastewater agencies established the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SWNA) in 1991. SNWA and the Colorado River Commission work together to protect Nevada’s Colorado River allocation.
SNWA, which is governed by a seven-member Board of Directors representing each of the member agencies, also negotiates for additional water resources, operates the regional water treatment and delivery system, conducts water-related research and promotes conservation.
- Big Bend Water District (Laughlin)
- Boulder City
- Clark County Water Reclamation District
- Las Vegas
- Las Vegas Valley Water District
- North Las Vegas
Drought and Conservation
In 2003 in response to the drought in the Colorado River Basin, SNWA and its member agencies implemented a Drought Plan that strengthens turf limits and imposes mandatory drought restrictions to achieve an immediate reduction in outdoor water use. These restrictions include mandatory watering group assignments, increased water waste fees and water budgets for golf courses.
SNWA has implemented one of the most aggressive and comprehensive water conservation programs in the nation. The goal is to change water-use habits without causing an adverse impact on the quality of life. SNWA offers rebates and services that help reduce outdoor water use and supports a number of public outreach activities to educate the public about conservation.
The successful Water Smart Landscapes rebate pays residential and commercial property owners to remove grass and replace it with xeriscape. Since the program’s inception, more than 100 million square feet of grass has been removed, saving more than 5.6 billion gallons of water each year.
The Drought Plan and conservation rebates have helped Southern Nevada save water. The community consumed 15 billion gallons less water in 2007 than in 2002, despite the addition of 400,000 new residents during that time span and more than 40 million visitors in 2007.