Nevada vying to recover share of water

By Launce Rake

Southern Nevada water officials are in Sacramento negotiating with the six other Colorado River basin states in what could be a critical effort to win back water cut by the federal government Jan. 1.

Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy and Deputy General Manager Kay Brothers are working on two fronts. Along with federal and California state officials, they are pushing four independent water agencies in the Golden State to resolve long-standing issues on how much each of the four can take from the Colorado River, a split that led to the cutoff of so-called "interim surplus" water this year.

If the California agencies cannot reach a compromise, the Nevada delegation hopes to convince the other states that Nevada should not be punished for California's intransigence, and the surplus should be resumed -- at least for Las Vegas.

At stake is 30,000 to 40,000 acre-feet of water per year, about 10 percent more than Nevada's base allocation of 300,000 acre-feet annually. One acre-foot is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or about enough water for a typical family for one year. Southern Nevada officials had counted on the extra water to provide a bridge to the year 2016, when groundwater and other supplies would become available to slake Las Vegas' thirst.

The U.S. Interior Department cut off both the Nevada and California surplus under Colorado River rules that dictated an end to the surplus unless the California agencies agreed on a water-sharing pact, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement. Interior officials, however, said Wednesday in strong terms that they do not believe Nevada should be punished for California's inability to come to terms.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority presented a proposal to de-couple Nevada's use of the surplus from California's in June. Nevada needs the proposal to win support from the other states along the Colorado River -- Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California -- as well as the federal government.

"If the Quantification Settlement Agreement is not completed in short order, then we would expect all the states to sit down and consider Nevada's request on an expedited basis," Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said from Sacramento on Wednesday.

That means California as well, Raley said.

"We would be coming back to the California water agencies and would ask very strongly that they hold Nevada harmless," he said. "Our hope is that if we do not have agreement by Aug. 15, the states will immediately turn to reviewing the Nevada proposal."

Raley noted that in relative terms, Nevada's use of surplus water -- actually unused river apportionments by Wyoming, Colorado and Utah -- is miniscule. California's surplus consumption has equaled about 800,000 acre-feet in a single year, more than twice Nevada's total apportionment.

Without a water-sharing pact in place, California faces what is dubbed the "hard landing" and would be restricted to 4.4 million acre-feet annually and no more. With the agreement, California, like Nevada, would have 15 years to wean itself from dependence on the surplus.

Raley delivered what he called a final offer to California at the Sacramento talks.

"We believe a major milestone has been reached," he said. Interior, which control disbursements of Colorado River water through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Lake Mead, is forwarding a 10-page Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, "that we believe is absolutely fair," Raley said.

The seven states on the Colorado River and the four California water agencies have made positive comments about the proposal, Raley said.

However, the California agencies have appeared close to compromise before, only to have hopes for a settlement dashed after one or another agency pulls back. According to the Associated Press, discussions have thus far been rocky, with disagreements among the agencies over who should bear the cost of environmental mitigation, especially for the threatened Salton Sea, a slowly dying inland body of water fed by river runoff.

Raley said he is hopeful that this round of negotiations will not be a repeat of earlier failures, but this is a last chance for California to maintain access to the surplus in future years.

"From a federal perspective, our work is done," he said.

Officials from the two California agencies central to the discussions in Sacramento said that they are sympathetic to Southern Nevada's concerns.

"Nobody can blame Nevada for wanting to de-couple," said Adan Ortega, vice president of external affairs for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The agency supplies water to 16 million consumers in California.

"There is no reason for them (Nevadans) to suffer for our inability to come to terms," Ortega said.

Sue Giller, spokeswoman for the Imperial Irrigation District, said she also is sympathetic to Nevada's perspective, but the emphasis of her agency is on successfully negotiating the water-sharing agreement.

"What happens if that doesn't happen -- We're not in the business of speculating," Giller said. Her agency consumes about two-thirds of California's allotment from the Colorado River for agricultural uses.

"Our emphasis right now is on achieving a QSA that is a solution for everybody," she said.

Vince Alberta, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said both Brothers and Mulroy were not available for interviews from Sacramento. He said the California settlement and the de-coupling of Nevada and California's water futures were subjects for conversation among all the states and agencies.

"A lot of people are sympathetic to the position that Nevada has been put in through no fault of its own," Alberta said.


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