Water Management Shouldn’t Stay in Las Vegas

By Ellen Gilinsky

What happens in Las Vegas shouldn’t stay in Las Vegas – when it comes to water management.  While attending the Watersmart Innovations annual conference to give out EPA’s prestigious WaterSense Partner of the Year Awards, I toured several Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) projects designed to ensure that Las Vegas area residents have clean and reliable water for years to come.

The region gets its water from Lake Mead, where the severe and lengthy drought has put the existing two water intakes at risk. SNWA didn’t wait until disaster struck. They pulled together years ago to fund and design a mid-lake deep water intake and low-lake level pumping station to minimize the risk of not being able to provide good quality water to its customers.  This, coupled with an aggressive water conservation program that has reduced net water use by 45 percent since 2002, has improved the area’s water future.

Lake Mead also receives return water from the Las Vegas wash, where fast-moving runoff from storms, coupled with treated wastewater flows, had resulted in eroded banks and poor water quality. This created the need for additional water treatment, which consumed energy and challenged water quality.

The SNWA assembled a diverse stakeholder group – the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee – and with funding from a variety of sources including the EPA CWA Section 319 program and other state grants, implemented a comprehensive source water protection program. The efforts focused on stream and wetland restoration that slowed down bank erosion, created wetlands, trapped sediment and nutrients with dams, and provided a diverse and attractive habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as for citizens to enjoy as a park.

These key actions to protect a valuable and essential water source could never have occurred without regional cooperation and advance planning.  Many other areas of the country are being impacted by climate change, from severe droughts to stronger storms to serious flooding.  Water resource agencies nationwide, with the help of federal and state agencies, need to band together to build climate resiliency into their plans so they can continue to provide adequate water of high quality to all users. Water conservation, source water protection, and water reuse are pieces of that puzzle as seen in Las Vegas – and it shouldn’t just stay there.

Ellen Gilinsky serves as the Senior Policy Advisor for Water at EPA. In this position Dr. Gilinsky addresses policy and technical issues related to all EPA water programs, with an emphasis on science, water quality, and state programs. Prior to this appointment she served as Director of the Water Division at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

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