The history of Southern Nevada is inextricably tied to water.

The seventh largest state, Nevada is also is the driest, averaging 9 inches of rain 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.

Early 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 the town site of Las Vegas. With groundwater as its sole source of water, Las Vegas continued to grow slowly.

Population Increase and a Water Crisis

Hoover Dam, on the border between Nevada and Arizona, was created to control Colorado River floods, provide irrigation water and produce hydroelectric power. The Hoover Dam project resulted in two notable events for Southern Nevada. The project brought an influx of people to the area from 1928 to 1936, and also created the Lake Mead reservoir.

Although the 1922 Colorado River Compact allotted a small amount of Colorado River water to Southern Nevada, that supply went largely unused until 1942, when local companies began importing Lake Mead water for industrial purposes. The rest of the valley continued to rely on groundwater supplies. By the mid-1940s, however, the town of Las Vegas was facing a major water crisis. As population and water demand grew, city officials became more concerned about a dwindling groundwater supply.

Hoping to curb groundwater usage, the Nevada Legislature created the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1947 to begin using the state's Colorado River allocation. The Water District began operations on July 1, 1954.

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.

By 1990, there were almost 750,000 people in the Las Vegas Valley and land use exceeded 71,000 acres. Resource challenges at the end of the 1980s had reached a crisis point; with the new decade, local leaders began to aggressively explore different options for extending and managing water resources, while meeting the ongoing demands of the community.

A Regional Approach to Water Management

To manage its limited water resources, Southern Nevada’s major water and wastewater agencies came together to establish the Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1991.

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. The Authority’s seven member agencies include:
  • Big Bend Water District (Laughlin)
  • Boulder City
  • Clark County Water Reclamation District
  • Henderson
  • Las Vegas
  • Las Vegas Valley Water District
  • North Las Vegas






Current Water Use

In Southern Nevada, residential water customers use just over 60 percent of the water supply, with 12.8 percent for commercial/industrial, 6.8 percent for golf courses, 7.2 percent for resorts, 5.6 percent for schools and parks, 5.6 percent for common areas and 1.6 percent for other water use.

Drought and Conservation

In 1999, the Colorado River Basin began to experience drought conditions that, from 2000 to 2004, became the worst five-year drought in the recorded history of the basin. These conditions were aggravated by several years of extremely dry soil conditions, which further reduced total runoff.

In 2003, in response to drought in the Colorado River Basin, the Southern Nevada Water Authority 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 160 million square feet of lawn has been removed, saving billions of gallons of water each year.

The Drought Plan and conservation rebates have helped Southern Nevada save water. Between 2002 and 2011, Southern Nevada’s consumption of Colorado River water decreased by approximately 36 billion gallons, despite the addition of 400,000 residents during that decade.