Shift to remote work could exacerbate water shortage as stay-at-home order tied to increased use in Henderson

As some businesses embrace a permanent shift to remote work across the Las Vegas Valley, some economic experts are concerned that an increase in residential water consumption could strain the region’s water resources.

A study published in June by economists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that the state’s pandemic-related stay-at-home order issued in March 2020 led to a significant increase in water usage in Henderson, driven by a rise in residential water consumption.

Nicholas Irwin, one of the study’s authors who specializes in environmental and urban economics, said that residential water usage went up by more than 12 percent in the first month after the stay-at-home order was issued.

“We've used a lot more water than we would have expected to use, and that's problematic because we're drawing more down,” Irwin told The Nevada Independent.

Residential water usage continued to stay above previous years’ usage for the following three billing cycles, Irwin said, putting additional pressure on the region’s limited water supply, which has struggled to keep up with population growth. In June, Lake Mead fell to its lowest level since the reservoir, held back by the Hoover Dam, was filled in the 1930s.

The study found that while the closures of schools and businesses resulted in a large decrease in commercial water usage (34.1–35.7 percent) and school water usage (55.8–66.2 percent) during the first month of the stay-at-home period, the increase in water usage by residential users (11.7–13.1 percent) during that time drove overall water use up across the city of Henderson during that month.

“Aggregating across all users, we find the [stay-at-home] order led to an increase in net water usage between 32 and 59 million gallons over the first 30 days,” the researchers wrote. “To put these effects in context, this equates to a 1.8 percent to 3.3 percent increase in monthly per capita water usage.”

Irwin said the results of the study were somewhat surprising to his team, as they expected the changes to the different types of water use to offset one another.

“We really thought there would be this offset that maybe the net effect would be very small or perhaps even negative,” Irwin said. “And we were surprised that not only was there a positive effect, but it's increasing over time, which is definitely really troubling.”

Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency that oversees the region’s water resources, said that not all of that consumption has an adverse impact, though. Mack said that because Southern Nevada recycles and reuses indoor water, an increase in indoor use actually has a negligible effect on the community’s water supply.

Still, data from the water authority paint a worrying trend for Southern Nevada, as consumptive water use — which does not allow for water to be treated and reused, including landscape irrigation and people washing their cars at home using a hose — ticked up in 2020.

At the water authority’s March 18 board meeting, the group discussed a set of data that showed water usage in Henderson and North Las Vegas was significantly higher in 2020 compared to the yearly averages from 2017 to 2019, with that growth primarily driven by an increase in water usage at single-family residences.

As that increase occurred, consumptive use of Nevada’s Colorado River allotment also rose. In 2018, Nevada used 244,000 acre-feet of its yearly allotment of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. In 2019, the state’s consumptive use dropped to roughly 234,000 acre-feet. But in 2020, that amount increased to nearly 256,000 acre-feet of water, a trend that Mack described as concerning.

Mack said that it’s possible people had more time to engage in the sorts of activities that drive consumptive use while staying at home during the early months of the pandemic.

Irwin, meanwhile, believes the overall increase in residential water usage at the start of the pandemic could have come from indoor activities, including increased hand washing and dishwashing. He also said that commercial and school buildings have more incentives than residential homes to adopt water conservation features, such as automatic shut-off facets and automatic low-flow toilets, which means residences may use more water even if that water is eventually reused.

“Inside the household, it's just each of these little, tiny things by itself. A couple gallons here and there, it's not a big deal,” Irwin said. “But if you aggregate that behavior across all of the houses, all the residential units, then that's where this effect really becomes really large.”

The increase in usage was not the same across the valley, however. While growth in water consumption in Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City contributed to an increase across the entire area managed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, water usage within the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which provides water to the city of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, decreased last year, as the closure of the Las Vegas Strip led to a steep decline in water usage by hotels within the district.

The study’s authors believe Henderson saw such a large increase in water usage in part because the city is heavily residential, unlike Las Vegas. The study notes that 98 percent of the city’s water users are residential users. But Irwin said that other cities in the American Southwest with a different mix of commercial and residential users, such as Phoenix, could also feel the negative effects of increased remote work as the entire region grapples with drought conditions and a scarcity of water.

Though Irwin said that Southern Nevada does a good job of reclaiming water and that the increase in water consumption during the early months of the pandemic could eventually be reversed, he emphasized the importance of spreading messages of conservation in the Las Vegas area, especially to new residents coming from areas where water scarcity is not a concern.

“This is where policies could come in to sort of reinforce the importance of water saving because they may not be aware of the importance of … conserving water,” he said. “There are the people that could be outside washing their car, which I've seen from some new neighbors — people out there washing their car, when you're not supposed to do that at all.”

Mack similarly emphasized the importance of conservation, especially when it comes to outdoor water use. He said that’s why the water authority institutes seasonal watering restrictions and why the agency advises people to use commercial car washes, so water can be reused rather than lost to evaporation.

The water authority also tries to curb outdoor use by eliminating water waste, such as broken sprinklers that allow water to flow off of a property. Mack said that reporting water waste online is one way community members can help conserve water.

During the water authority’s March meeting, the group discussed water conservation efforts across the valley, with a focus on removing patches of non-functional turf. At the time, members of the water authority said that some neighborhoods were resistant to efforts to remove the decorative turf and were not motivated by incentives to do so. Now, it’s no longer a choice. In early June, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a measure that prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks.

The bill, AB356, adds to the efforts to reduce per capita water use by prohibiting Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental turf not used for a single-family home after 2026.

Along with the removal of non-functional turf, the water authority has outlined a variety of other goals within its conservation strategic plan, including improving water efficiency in new development, improving compliance with landscape watering restrictions and reducing water losses associated with evaporative cooling.

At the March meeting, John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, stressed the importance of public education and advertising about water conservation.

“Call it ‘resting on your laurels,’ call it ‘reinvigorating the community,’ but … today is kind of the wake-up call of, we got to have all hands on deck and get out there and get the community reengaged,” Entsminger said.

Reports: Nevada lacks policies to protect residents from utility service shutoffs during pandemic

Solar field in Nevada

Nevada is among the states with the fewest protections preventing its citizens from losing access to electricity and water during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two separate reports analyzing state moratoriums on utility shut offs.

The first report, released by Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware on behalf of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, puts Nevada in the “partial protections” category for utility moratoriums as a whole. The report released by the Center for Biological Diversity regarding electricity moratoriums, however, shows Nevada as being in the category of least protective states, with no legally binding or voluntary orders regarding electricity shutoffs. 

“Electricity, gas and water services should not be luxuries for the privileged few, especially during a pandemic,” Carper said in a press release announcing the report’s publication on July 23. “I would ask my colleagues to imagine what it’s like to manage a fever without access to air conditioning on a 100-degree day. I would ask my colleagues to imagine what it’s like to go without running water at a time when we’re being encouraged to wash our hands with soap and clean water to slow the spread of this deadly virulent disease.”

He added that ensuring utility access is “a public health imperative.” The importance of access to essential utilities, especially in the midst of the pandemic, has led to many calling for a nationwide moratorium on utility shut offs. 

The Senate report is a follow up on an initial analysis from April 29 and includes information from all 50 states on all executive orders announcements from governor’s offices as well as orders from state utility regulators.

The report categorizes Nevada along with 22 other states as having “partial protection against disconnection of residential utility services,” citing a statement made by Gov. Steve Sisolak on March 15 when he announced that utility companies in the state had “committed to maintaining all services regardless of a resident’s ability to pay.”

“These measures offer residents some degree of protection from utility disconnections, but do not guarantee uninterrupted gas, electric and water service to all residents,” the report stated.

However, Sisolak’s statement did not constitute a state order, and the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) confirmed that any action taken by utility companies to cease shut offs was entirely individual and moratoriums are not required by the state in any capacity. The commission posted a list in March of which utility providers in the state had issued moratoriums on shut offs for non-payment, but many of those policies have since expired.

According to the report by the Center for Biological Diversity, Nevada is one of 18 states that had no voluntary or legally binding orders halting electricity disconnections. Based on current expiration dates of moratoriums in many states, that number could increase to 45 states by Sept. 1.

The utilities commission has defended its policy on shut-off moratoriums in a statement sent to The Nevada Independent on Tuesday.

“None of the utilities within the PUCN’s jurisdiction are terminating service or imposing late fees due to non-payment by customers experiencing financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Moreover, since March 2020, the PUCN has received zero complaints related to service terminations of electric, gas, water, or wastewater services from customers facing financial hardships.”

Utility providers that have reinstated shut-offs are municipal utilities that are not regulated by the state. The Senate report estimates that approximately 97 percent of residential water customers in the state receive water from a municipal utility.

The commission also noted that its regulations prohibit shut-offs of service at certain times, including weekends, holidays, and periods of high temperatures for electric service. Additionally, it has tried to encourage utility companies to suspend disconnections by allowing them to track lost revenue.

“The PUCN encouraged and facilitated the preservation of utility services during the pandemic by issuing an emergency order on March 27, 2020, establishing a mechanism for tracking costs incurred by utilities to maintain services to customers affected by COVID-19. Pursuant to the PUCN’s emergency order, utilities will have an opportunity to seek recovery of the tracked costs in future regulatory proceedings.”

Three electricity providers — NV Energy, the City of Boulder City and Lincoln County Power — all announced that they would be temporarily suspending disconnections for non-payment in March. Since then, Boulder City and Lincoln County Power have ended that policy.

NV Energy, which provides electricity services to the majority of the state, is continuing to suspend disconnections for those affected by COVID-19 as long as customers reach out to seek assistance. Disconnections for customers who have not indicated they are impacted by COVID-19 will resume in September and collection activities will resume in October. Customers who have contacted the company and been placed on a flexible payment plan will not be disconnected.

While the Center for Biological Diversity focused its study on access to electricity, the Senate report looked at access to water services as the most important and most vulnerable utility.

“Particular emphasis has been placed in this analysis on efforts to maintain residential water service,” Carper wrote in the Senate report. “Safe reliable drinking water and the ability to wash one’s hands or other surfaces that could be contaminated by [COVID-19] are vital to public health.”

The report also observed that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with higher rates of infection and unemployment. Even prior to the pandemic, a study by the Food and Water Watch in 2016 had observed that communities of color suffer from the highest rates of water service disconnections.

Even after a large decrease in the rate in June, Nevada still sits at an unemployment rate of 15 percent, the fourth highest in the country, putting the state’s residents, a large percentage of whom are African-American or Hispanic, at risk of a loss of access to essential utilities.

More than 30 water service providers in the state suspended disconnections for non-payment following Sisolak’s declaration of emergency in March, but not all of those providers have continued that policy.

Some providers did extend their initial policies but have since let them lapse. The City of Elko announced in March a 45-day moratorium on water shut-offs. That moratorium was later extended to July 15, but since that date, water shut-offs have resumed for residential properties. The city is providing more assistance to commercial properties, with utility payments deferred for businesses through Aug. 31.

Other providers are continuing their moratoriums. Truckee Meadows Water Authority, which serves more than 425,000 residents in the Reno area, is continuing to suspend disconnections indefinitely, and a representative from Carson City’s Public Works department said it would probably take “something like a vaccine” for the city to end its moratorium on disconnections.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District, which provides water service to 1.5 million Nevadans in Las Vegas, Coyote Springs, Jean, Laughlin and Searchlight, is continuing to suspend disconnections through Sept. 1, after which the company will still work with customers affected by the pandemic to help with their payments.

“Even after that Sept. 1 date, we will work with our customers to create payment plans,” said Bronson Mack, the public information officer with the Las Vegas Valley Water District. “And we really do that year round.”

This switch to payment assistance-focused policies has been a pattern among utility companies ending their shut-off moratoriums. While they are no longer suspending disconnections, many are placing a new emphasis on customers contacting companies to establish payment plans or otherwise defer payments to prevent disconnects from taking place.

The Center for Biological Diversity argues in its study that voluntary moratoriums by individual utility providers are not sufficient to guarantee access to water and electricity for all vulnerable households in the country. 

“In the 21 states without mandatory state orders, customers of electric cooperatives and public utilities are still left at the whim of their utility,” the report reads, continuing to say that many smaller utility providers are not in the financial position to offer the same protections as larger investor-owned utilities. 

Because of this, the center is joining 830 public organizations and 113 members of Congress in calling for a nationwide moratorium on utility shut offs which would require providers to reconnect any household that has been disconnected, suspend all late payment fees, and assist customers in managing accrued bills.

According to the Senate’s report, congressional action is being considered in order to help individuals who are facing service disconnections. Possibilities being considered include providing financial assistance to customers struggling due to illness or job loss and requiring state and local governments to ensure utility connections in order for them to receive federal funding.

“If the Senate doesn’t act, millions of families face the risk of losing power and water during an unprecedented public health and economic crisis,” said Greer Ryan, energy policy analyst at the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program.

Updated on Tuesday, July 28 at 4:01 p.m. to include the end date for NV Energy's suspension of utility disconnections.

Updated on Tuesday, July 28 at 5:30 p.m. to include a statement from the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.

Commissioner calls on water authority 'to look in a different direction' as District Court judge reaffirms decision to deny water for Las Vegas pipeline

A District Court judge has once again scuttled the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to obtain and pump rural groundwater about 300 miles from eastern Nevada, prompting one Clark County commissioner to call on the water authority "to look in a different direction.”

Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes, presiding over the 7th Judicial District Court, ruled that the state’s water law does not support the project. The court order, filed on March 9, denied the water authority a portion of the rights for the project, which it said could result in “water mining.”

The ruling is the latest decision in ongoing litigation over the project in state and federal courts. And it comes as the water authority faces continued pressure to drop the controversial pipeline in favor of more conservation and investments to increase its supply from the Colorado River.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who sits on the water authority’s board of directors, said Estes’ ruling “sends a clear message to the SNWA.” 

“From my perspective, it’s time for the SNWA to look in a different direction and consider ending the legal fight,” said Jones.

Opponents of the project have long argued a groundwater pipeline pumping water from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas would cripple an ecosystem that supports wildlife and recreation, harm sacred tribal land and hurt ranching, especially in and around the small town of Baker, Nevada.

Facing a growing population and concerns about drought, the water authority began looking to the northern part of the state to supplement its water supply in 1989. Its proposal to pump water from rural eastern Nevada to the state’s largest city inflamed tension between the two areas. 

But in the decades since, the water authority has not needed the pipeline, pushing back the timeline for the project by cutting its Colorado River supply through conservation and recycling.  About 90 percent of the Las Vegas-area’s drinking water supply comes from the Colorado River. 

On Tuesday, Bronson Mack, a spokesperson for the water authority said “there is no scenario in our water resource plan where this project would be needed within the next 30 years.”

In the ruling, Estes defended his 2013 opinion asking the state engineer, Nevada’s top water regulator, to revisit a portion of the case using guidelines laid out by his court. In revisiting the case, the state engineer’s office denied the water authority certain rights for the project, while approving a new mitigation plan in late 2018. 

At the time of the ruling, State Engineer Jason King said that there was water available, but his decision to deny the permits was constrained by the guidelines set out in Estes’ 2013 opinion. 

The water authority board voted to appeal King’s ruling, bringing the matter back to Estes. 

In the ruling on Monday, Estes said that “this court finds that the water appropriations in Spring Valley,” where most of the groundwater pumping is expected, “threaten to prove detrimental to the public interest because the awards, at the current well configuration, result in water mining, will never reach equilibrium, and will result in depletion of the Spring Valley aquifer.”

Estes’ ruling, rather than addressing the water authority, focused on the state engineer. 

“At the outset,” Estes writes in his conclusion, “this court emphasizes that it is not bound by, nor does it agree with, the engineer’s interpretation of NRS 533.370,” which deals with water rights.

In addition to denying the water authority some of its water rights for the project, Estes’ ruling denied the water authority’s plan to mitigate the environmental impacts of pumping activities.

The water authority has not said if it is going to appeal. But it has also been looking for new sources of water. In recent months, the water authority has expressed interest in investing in a project with Southern California that would potentially free up more Colorado River water.

Although the litigation could continue, Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of groups opposed to the project, said the pipeline “is dead in the water.” 

The water network was also a litigant in the case. 

“SNWA has no right-of-way for the pipeline, and no rights to water with which to fill the pipeline," Roerink said. "This project is dead in the water. It’s time for SNWA to finally move on.”

Is customer-based water conservation a drop in the bucket in Southern Nevada?

Lake Mead and the bathtub ring around the reservoir

Reduced precipitation from climate change and disputes over Colorado River water rights loom over Nevada’s water supply, but the agency that oversees it says officials can manage the uncertainty with a boost from new conservation programs and legislative mandates.

The Southern Nevada’s Water Authority’s (SNWA) Joint Water Conservation Plan was approved by the board’s seven member agencies in December, after significant updates to the conservation formula and strategies for 2019 through August 2024, when the five-year plan will be updated.

“Beginning in 2000 and continuing today, the Colorado River Basin has experienced drought conditions that quickly developed into the worst drought in the basin’s recorded history,” the plan says.

But the water authority maintains that it is on track to sustain its 2.1 million customers through the years when the water supply is unpredictable or below projections.

“Despite those additional half a million people moving to the valley, we are actually physically depleting the Colorado river by 25 percent less than we were in 2000,” said Colby Pellegrino, water resources director for the authority.

While Southern Nevada’s water stores are shrinking, its population is among the fastest-growing in the nation. A Census Bureau report published in April ranked Clark County the second-fastest growing county in the U.S. — an increase of about 48,000 people between 2017 and 2018.

Lake Mead stores about 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply. Locals and visitors who observe the growing “bathtub ring” — the discolored band of rock above the lake’s surface marking where the higher water level used to be — might wonder: Will the region be able to sustain the trends in population growth?

In August, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico would be required to “give up” portions of each state’s respective Colorado River allotment, to ensure that water won’t run out if the drought continues or worsens. These contributions take the form of Intentionally Created Surplus or “ICS” credits — water that is considered to be part of the state’s annual allotment of Colorado River, but remains unused and is returned or “banked” in Lake Mead for times of federally declared drought.

According to the SNWA conservation plan, “banked resources” are being used flexibly to meet demands and offset any future reductions in water supply, meaning water that has gone unused in previous years count toward the supply of available water, in times of drought. Because Southern Nevada uses approximately 80 percent of its allotment and has been banking the rest over recent years, authorities say that the region has enough saved up to get through the 2020 drought cuts without affecting water deliveries to customers.

The conservation plan reports that the water authority has banked approximately two million acre feet as surplus credits (ICS) through 2018, more than enough to cover the 8,000 acre-feet contribution that federal water managers required Nevada to put into the waning river.

By racking up ICS credits and setting consumption goal of 105 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) by 2035, the water authority hopes to be able to sustainably service more people with less water in the coming years.

A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime
A view of Hoover Dam is seen from the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Every drop counts

Updates to the conservation plan come after the Legislature approved AB163 earlier this year, a bill requiring utility companies to increase efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures in new construction. Because of these new provisions, the water authority’s member agencies will work on decreasing the number of gallons per flush or per minute by as much as 32 percent starting next year, when the bill becomes effective.

“The water authority has stressed that anything that enters our plumbing system can be recycled. But I think we hit an agreement with this bill that we want to encourage recycling indoor use as well,” Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts said earlier this month. “This is to make sure every part of the state is being efficient with our water resources.”

Watts, who introduced AB163 during the 2019 legislative session, said that the new law aims to codify what the water authority and its member agencies already are measuring and to make that information available and accessible to the public.

According to the water authority, almost 100 percent of indoor water use in Southern Nevada is recycled back into Lake Mead. The bill says that the Legislature-approved plumbing fixtures will apply for newly constructed units and be implemented through local legislation that directs water agencies to use only approved fixtures and phase out older, less efficient ones.

“We do not play a role in our customers upgrading toilets, urinals, shower heads and faucets,” said Pellegrino, the water resources director for SNWA. “[The efficiency standards] are prescribed by the Legislature [and] that legislation directs the governing municipalities to adopt them into their codes and regulations so that products [that do not meet the new standards] are no longer sold and installed within the Las Vegas Valley.”

To further curb water waste, the water authority said that its member agencies have been ramping up more punitive fees for high water users since 2017. Currently, repeat violators are assessed water waste fees on their water bills beginning as high at $80.

According to the water authority’s estimates, since 2002, Southern Nevada jurisdictions have conducted more than 222,000 water waste investigations and assessed more than $2 million in fees to water wasters. This year, more than 14,000 investigations were completed, of which 1,377 resulted in a fine. 

Water authority officials attribute the low incidence of fines to customers’ willingness to change their behavior once they are made aware of profligate consumption.  

To work toward meeting the new efficiency standards, the water authority has started piloting smart leak detectors to customers who apply for the rebate coupon, which gives 50 percent off the cost of the detection device, up to $200. The devices connect with smartphones and provide customers with emergency notifications regarding leaks or other irregular water usage occurrences.

Pellegrino said that the devices, which have been distributed to 100 customers over the course of this year, are still in a small-scale “pilot” phase. More testing will be necessary to break down the cost-benefit and conservation impact of customers using the devices.

Measuring consumption and conservation

The water authority uses gallons per capita per day (GPCD) as one of its main conservation metrics and has updated the GPCD formula from previous years to account for “return flows,” or water that is recycled back into the Colorado River. Per the Joint Water Conservation Plan, the water authority has started subtracting recycled water from total water diverted, before dividing by the number of customers. 

Gallons per capita per day is generally a measurement of gallons of water use per person. Traditionally it is calculated by total water diverted divided by the customer population. To put that in perspective, one toilet flush typically consumes about 1.5 gallons, and one minute of running a showerhead or tap consumes 2.5 gallons.

With the new GPCD formula, the water authority shows a decline from 1998 to 2018, from 189 to 113 GPCD — a net 40 percent reduction in water use per customer per day. The water authority is hovering around the 105 GPCD benchmark goal stated in the conservation plan. The decline has not been steady, however.

Because GPCD accounts for population growth, it can be an effective metric to measure changes in water-use efficiency over time. As of 2017, the water authority’s service population was more than 2.1 million customers, and its water use is accounted for separately from park service jurisdictions, the Bureau of Reclamation or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The resort category composes about six percent of the authority’s water consumption. Those customers in particular welcome on average 40 million annual visitors to swim in their pools, enjoy giant water shows choreographed to music and use facilities and all the associated laundry services. According to Bronson Mack, spokesman for the SNWA, water consumption by these 40 million visitors can be classified as indoor “non-consumptive” or recycled use.

People watch The Fountains of Bellagio on Monday, March 20, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Las Vegas and other municipalities tend to calculate GPCD differently based on factors like climate, demographics, water-use accounting practices and economic conditions.

“In terms of total Colorado Basin supplies, subtracting return flows is the best way to account for a community's water use, because that water is available for reuse by others,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. “Best practices in water accounting always try to account for return flows. That's easier to do for Las Vegas, where you can measure the flows in Las Vegas Wash, and harder on farms, where drainage water percolates into shallow aquifers or via drains to a river.”

On the other hand, Michael Cohen from the Pacific Institute says that the change in the GPCD formula might make it harder for the water authority to compare its conservation efforts with other municipalities that share the Colorado River.

“It's an apples to oranges comparison by the way they've done it,” Cohen said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Conventionally, agencies calculate GPCD as total water deliveries divided by total service area population. Subtracting return flows from the delivery volume dramatically reduces reported GPCD and means that value is not comparable to GPCD reported by other water agencies.”

Cohen added that the change in formula showed that there are still “shifting terms” and conservation metrics, and that the federal government generally does not keep a record of different regions’ conservation data, for comparison. 

Incentive pricing

Mack says that adjusting outdoor irrigation timers is the most important strategy when it comes to conserving water. Some of the most common types of water waste discovered by appraisals include outdoor leaks and not following time-of-day and seasonal watering schedules, as prescribed by the water authority.

While enforcement and penalties fall to member agencies, the water authority assists by mailing notices to “high water users” and offering on-site appraisals to these residential customers. According to Mack, as of last year, the water authority completed 190 on-site appraisals and is beginning to see an average water savings of 35,000 gallons per home per year.

“These savings are really the result of customers changing water use practices and behavior, rather than retrofitting fixtures or implementing other permanent water-saving measures like removing grass,” Mack said.

What about charging more for water, to create conservation incentives for customers, especially those who are considered to be “high water use”?  

The Las Vegas Valley Water District, the water authority’s largest member agency serving 400,000 customers, has been modifying its tiered-rate structure since 1990, increasing the number of tiers over the years so that customers that use more generally pay more. But critics have said that a letter in the mail or a few more dollars on the next bill are a slap on the wrist for wealthy communities and their homeowners associations in urban developments such as Anthem and Summerlin in Las Vegas.  

Watts served on a citizens advisory committee for the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 2016 and 2017, where he weighed in on the utility’s tiered rate system.

“When it comes to how water is paid for, Southern Nevada does not have the steepest tiered rates. And tiered rates are a conservation mechanism — increasing the price of water is a good way to send a signal to folks to be more efficient with that resource,” Watts said. “I asked that folks look into creating a new tier targeted at the most profligate water wasters, to be punitive, to get their water waste in line and to help fund other conservation programs like rebates. And that, ultimately, hasn’t moved forward.”

In terms of financing water resources and infrastructure, Clark County commissioners in July made permanent a quarter-cent sales tax that some critics say subsidizes the price of water to the benefit of the hotel industry. The water authority’s general manager, John Entsminger, said the revenue would be used for infrastructure projects.   

“I do believe that the sales tax is generally a regressive measure,” Watts said, meaning it disproportionately hurts poorer residents. “I wouldn’t say tourists aren’t contributing at all. Of course, whenever they’re coming and spending on food and drink and goods at malls, they are contributing to the sales tax in Nevada.”

Climate change, population growth and water use by other delivery agencies who share Southern Nevada’s water stores make Southern Nevadans hold tight to the adage, “In the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” Regardless of who pays for it, Southern Nevadans have a shared investment in regional conservation efforts, and want to make sure revenues and efforts expended are setting them up for a sustainable future — a conceivable reality, based on conservation data. 

“Southern Nevada has been under its Colorado River entitlement year after year after year despite significant population growth,” Cohen said. “I guess there's the point that population could exceed available water supply. But, certainly looking at the trend line, I would say they've done a very good job getting the math under control and living within their available water supply.”

Daniel Rothberg contributed to this story.

Water authority would pay $30 million to Raiders under proposed decade-long advertising contract for water conservation

Rendering of football stadium to the left of I-15 in Las Vegas

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is proposing a 10-year marketing deal with the future Las Vegas Raiders that will pay the NFL franchise more than $30 million in tax dollars over the next decade, enabling the agency to use team logos and place advertising in the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium.

The deal, which is up for approval at the water authority’s board meeting on Thursday, is worth $2.5 million with an automatic annual four percent increase that will see the annual payment top out at about $3.5 million by 2029.

Scott Huntley, a public services senior manager with the authority, said that the marketing contract price was the same for a group of roughly 20 “founding partners” including Caesars Entertainment, Desert Ford Dealers and Cox Communications that have initial advertising rights at the Allegiant Stadium, which is partially funded by $750 million in Las Vegas hotel room taxes. 

Huntley said the Raiders had contacted the water authority’s general manager John Entsminger about potentially advertising in the new stadium earlier this year, and that the two sides have been in contract negotiations since July. 

The proposed contract is a major expansion of the SNWA’s marketing budget with professional sports teams; agency spokesman Bronson Mack said the water authority’s advertising budget with UNLV, minor league baseball team Las Vegas Aviators, Las Vegas Lights FC and the National Hockey League’s Golden Knights is only about $500,000 in total. SNWA’s total advertising campaign for water compliance and conservation is roughly $4.9 million a year, he said.

But Huntley said the proposed advertising contract would reap many positive water conservation benefits for the authority, including an estimated 169 million impressions and would help SNWA target a larger and more diverse audience of Raiders fans than a normal marketing campaign or through partnerships with other sports teams.

“It is a big, big audience and it is an audience that we very much would like to get to,” he said.

The contract gives the water authority wide advertising privileges — focused on water conservation and restriction programs — at the stadium and during NFL games, including the ability to place English and Spanish television ads for games controlled by the Raiders and other ads during other team television and social media programming. 

The contract buys the regional water authority digital and physical advertising spaces on TV, radio, social media and physically at the stadium, including the sponsorship of a two-minute warning, a large sign in the stadium’s main concourse and a “marquee signage package” allowing SNWA material to appear on a team-operated billboard near the stadium on Interstate 15.

On the digital side, the contract affords the SNWA branding and a rotating advertisement on the team’s desktop, tablet and mobile sites (plus the team’s official app) with an entitlement of 1 million impressions a year, plus rights of up to 250,000 15-second pre-roll advertisements on the team’s digital platforms. It also guarantees a full page color advertisements in the team’s gameday magazine.

The water authority would also be designated as the “presenting sponsor” of the team’s final non-nationally televised preseason game. The contract also allows the water authority to have advertising privileges in bathrooms throughout the upper and lower concourse of the stadium; something Huntley said was advantageous given the connection to water in bathrooms and the presence of a “captive audience.”

“We like to use a lot of humor in our advertising and the jokes in bathrooms almost write themselves,” he said.

The contract will also give the authority license to potentially use Raiders players in advertisements — something that SNWA used to great success with Golden Knights fan favorite Ryan Reaves in a television ad with more than 117,000 views on YouTube. Mack said the agency had the “exact intention” to use the Raiders in the same way in future advertising and marketing material.

“We're hit with over 5,000 ads and messages a day as Americans from media, and you only have that 1.3 (to) 1.5 seconds to capture that attention and get that message through and cut through the noise,” he said. “And that's one of the things that Ryan Reeves really helped us do, because those ads are so over the top, and really kind of silly...but those ads are cutting through the noise and they're getting people to stop (and) listen to the message.”

Mack added that the water authority had found in research that in residential homes, the individual most often responsible for setting or changing the sprinkler clock is a male, making sports advertising (and its predominantly male audience) suitable for conservation messaging.

“Utilizing sports and communicating through sports is just a great way for us to reach that target demographic,” he said.

The contract also gives the SNWA the ability to use various designations, including “Official Water Conservation Partner of the Raiders” and “Official Water Conservation Partner of Allegiant Stadium.” 

Additionally, the contract requires the Raiders to annually donate $600,000 for the installation or upgrade of two Clark County School District football fields from grass to synthetic turf. The school district will select which fields to upgrade. The contract allows the Raiders to make “reasonable efforts” to secure NFL grants for similar donations and for the schools to use turf previously used by the Raiders.

That portion of the contract also requires the Raiders to invite a “mutually agreed number” of SNWA Youth Advisory Council for a tour of the stadium, including an appearance by a Raiders executive, a catered meal and a social media post by the team.

The SNWA will also receive some other benefits through the contract, including guaranteed annual appearances by six Raiders alumni, six appearances by at least two Raiderettes and three appearances by the Raider’s mascot. The appearances are limited to an hour, must be in Clark County and specific alumnus and Raiderettes are up to the team’s discretion.

The contract also gives the SNWA an annual $100,000 “Activation Fund” credit, which can be used to purchase stadium tour tickets, rental of the team’s practice facility, advertising inventory and other “mutually agreed inventory.” The water authority is the latest public agency in the state to become financially involved with the Raiders, who agreed to move to Las Vegas after state lawmakers in 2016 approved allocating $750 million in hotel room taxes to fund construction of the stadium.

The city of Henderson gave the football team a $6 million discount on a sale of unused land for the team’s headquarters in early 2018, and NV Energy — the state’s incumbent electric monopoly — reached a deal with the football team in October for a specially designed, discounted electric rate model for stadium operations.

Daniel Rothberg contributed to this story.

Environmental groups argue lands bill will exempt Las Vegas pipeline from judicial review; water authority disagrees

Environmental groups are raising concerns over a provision in draft legislation they believe could exempt the Las Vegas pipeline — a proposal to pump eastern Nevada groundwater about 300 miles to Southern Nevada — from further litigation and federal environmental review. 

The concern stems from Clark County’s recent legislative proposal that aims to resolve issues with the federal land that encircles Las Vegas as the region looks to expand its urban footprint. 

At issue is a section focused on transmission for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which manages its power portfolios — with other public agencies — through an association separate from NV Energy. The bill requests a right-of-way for power lines on federal public land in Lincoln and Clark counties (rights-of-way are required to develop projects on federal public land).

The draft bill says the right-of-way that is granted “shall not be subject to further administrative or judicial review.” But in doing so, it makes reference to an existing federal environmental analysis for the pipeline and related power lines. As a result, groups fear the bill could be used to exempt the pipeline’s environmental analysis, already the subject of litigation, from further review.

[The water authority] is trying to rewrite the laws to allow their destructive pipeline and remove barriers that were enacted to protect Nevadans and their public resources,” Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said in a press release last week.

When asked whether the lands bill prevented further environmental or judicial review of the pipeline, water authority spokesman Bronson Mack pushed back, saying “the answer is absolutely not.” He said the provision within the proposed bill applied to granting a right-of-way for power lines that will convey renewable energy to comply with Nevada’s increased clean energy rules. 

Although the power lines might travel within the same corridor — or right-of-way — as a small section of where a future pipeline could be built, the transmission, he said, is a separate project. Mack said the bill exclusively focuses on power lines and would not preempt the process for the pipeline's environmental analysis, part of which was the subject of a court order in 2017. 

“It already is going through judicial review,” Mack said. “This legislation would not change that.”

The water authority first proposed the pipeline in 1989, expecting rapid growth and a shortage of its Colorado River supply heading into the 21st century. The growth came, but the shortage did not. Cities across the West, including Las Vegas, were able to grow on existing supplies, largely due to conservation and more efficient indoor use. Still, the water authority is pursuing state and federal permits for the project, though it is unlikely that the pipeline will be needed for decades. 

On Friday, several environmental groups sent a letter to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, outlining their concerns with two of the water-related provisions within Clark County’s lands bill. The organizations included the water network, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the National Parks Conservation Association. 

In the letter, they wrote “bedrock environmental protections must continue to guide large-scale development proposals that have far-reaching effects on water resources and the environment throughout the region.”

In response to that letter, Cortez Masto said in a statement on Monday that her office will “continue to work closely with all local stakeholders to hear their thoughts on proposed lands legislation for Clark County… I’ll continue to meet with and discuss solutions with Nevadans — from local leaders, to conservationists, to our business community and our military.”

Last year, a similar issue arose when a federal spending bill aimed to block lawsuits over a final environmental review for a water project under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In that case, the bill drafters were explicit about their intent. The draft Clark County lands bill is vague.

But Marci Henson, who directs Clark County’s air quality department and is spearheading the comprehensive lands bill, said exempting the pipeline from litigation was not the bill’s “intent.”

The disputed provision is only one aspect of the county’s lands bill, which has been developed over about two years. The proposed bill would build on top of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, known as SNPLMA, legislation designating which federal public lands the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was allowed to sell to developers. Most of the proceeds go to conservation projects, with the rest going to the water authority and the state. The bill would expand the amount of public land available for development by about 56,000 acres, potentially opening up the I-15 corridor to more growth. 

To offset the impact of growth, the bill would designate roughly 297,000 acres of conservation land and about 83,000 acres of wilderness. Those designations could help the county meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, Henson said, but she added that the county would still need to meet the requirements of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new development conflicted with habitat conserved for dozens of species, including the threatened Mojave desert tortoise. 

Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, however, remain concerned that the bill could skirt the rules laid out by the wildlife service, the agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The group has argued that creating mitigation through congressional designations could undermine the scientific-based administrative process that the service typically takes.

In June last year, the Clark County Commission voted unanimously to approve a resolution outlining the contents of the bill and directing county staff to draft the potential legislation. Although the bill’s broad focus looks at large-scale land planning, the legislation could also resolve smaller day-to-day issues with federal public land used for Clark County schools and public infrastructure.

Including hydropower in RPS will give NV Energy, others leg up in meeting higher renewable standard

In Nevada, there are few words more synonymous with the term renewable energy than “solar,” a given in a state called the “Saudi Arabia of solar.”

That connection and subsequent imagery of massive solar fields blanketing the Nevada desert dominated messaging around a 2018 ballot question and a bill approved by the 2019 Legislature raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030.

Gov. Steve Sisolak — who during the 2018 campaign cut an ad in which he appeared in the midst of a solar field touting his support for raising the RPS — signed the bill, SB358, on Earth Day surrounded by appreciative lawmakers from both parties, who applauded the Democratic governor’s pronouncement of the bill as a “major milestone” in driving renewable energy growth in the state.

In fact, the bill will increase compliance with the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard overnight — but in a much less-publicized way.

A seemingly minor change in the legal definition of hydropower could have potentially significant implications by allowing entities, including NV Energy, to leverage existing large hydropower facilities toward meeting the RPS, thereby giving them a leg up toward meeting an increased standard without requiring any new spending to expand renewable energy.

Had the bill been in effect last year, NV Energy would have been able to meet around 12 percent of its mandated RPS goal just with electricity generated by the Hoover Dam.

The 2019 bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, said in an interview that the change was in part meant to give more leeway to entities now required to meet the standard, as well as to rural electric cooperatives locked into long-term hydropower contracts. He said past concerns that favoring hydropower would push other renewable energy sources to the wayside were outdated, and that the bill was an attempt to have the RPS accurately reflect the actual renewable generation in the state.

“The thinking has evolved,” he said. “The market is moving on new and emerging renewables, and we’re looking at this from not just a bill to create opportunities for new and emerging industries, we’re looking at it as an overall, more holistic view of how we get to a zero-carbon electricity sector.”

RPS and hydropower

That change marks the end of a longstanding state policy of not including hydropower in the RPS formula — a deliberate omission intended to spur development in nascent renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Rose McKinney James, a lobbyist and energy consultant credited with helping the state pass its first RPS in 1997, said the initial portfolio standard was set up to focus on “traditional” renewable energy sources and that including hydropower would have made it “very challenging to get any momentum from solar.”

“Hydro is obviously an important part of the overall mix, but it doesn’t get to the essence, to the heart of what we’re trying to do in this state, which is to drive development using our indigenous resources,” she said in an interview.

Electricity produced by waterpower was added to the state’s definition of “renewable energy” in 2003, where lawmakers added a limited exemption for hydropower projects used exclusively for agriculture or projects with less than 30 megawatts of generating capacity.

But concern was still evident even in 2003; former Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley raised concerns during a hearing that the bill would “gut everything we are trying to do” in developing new electric resources.

But the bill approved unanimously by lawmakers and signed into law by Sisolak last month removes many of those exemptions, meaning renewable energy created by large hydropower producers — namely the Hoover Dam — can now be credited toward meeting the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

How it affects NV Energy

The measure could have a sizable impact for NV Energy, which receives a large percentage of the state’s share of electricity annually produced by the dam — providing enough power to serve 1.3 million people in the Southwest.

According to 2017 data from the Colorado River Commission, NV Energy receives more than 497,700 megawatt hours of electric generation from the Hoover Dam. Under the state’s RPS system, that production means it will generate the same number of “Portfolio Energy Credits,” which are required for yearly compliance with the standard.

A Renewable Portfolio Standard works by setting up an artificial marketplace where renewable power plants gain “PECs” (Portfolio Energy Credits) for producing renewable energy. The state runs a marketplace where PECs can be bought and sold, and requires NV Energy and other applicable entities to meet a certain percentage standard by turning in enough credits as compared to their total electricity generation.

In NV Energy’s 2018 RPS compliance report, the utility reported nearly 20.5 million megawatt hours of electric sales over the year, with a 20 percent RPS requirement of around 4.1 million PECs. If the hydropower credited to the utility was applied to the RPS in 2018, it would make up about 12 percent of the credits needed to meet the 20 percent RPS target — boosting the utility's reported renewable production numbers by about a tenth without having to spend a penny more on renewable energy programs.

Although the addition of hydropower will help the utility meet required renewable standards, the company has already taken steps to meet a higher RPS. NV Energy has held steadfast since announcing in 2018 the company’s support of raising the standard to 50 percent by 2030, and won approval last year from state energy regulators to construct six new large-scale photovoltaic solar power plants, more than doubling renewable energy production in the state by 2023.

It exceeded its RPS compliance target in 2018, the ninth straight year of doing so, and a utility spokeswoman said in an email that the company will comply with the new RPS “as it aligns with our long-term goal of 100 percent renewable energy at low costs for customers.”

Other impacts

But NV Energy isn’t the only entity receiving power from the dam — several rural cooperatives and power districts, including Boulder City, Valley Electric Association, Overton Power District and Lincoln County Power District all draw significant amounts of electric power from the dam.

Andy Maggi, the head of the Nevada Conservation League, said that although his organization typically opposes new hydropower development given negative effects to the environment through disruption of stream flow and local ecosystems, his organization was fine with including more hydropower into the RPS formula given that rural cooperatives and power districts had signed multi-decade hydropower contracts and would be relying on that power source for years to come.

“We understand that for a lot of municipal utilities and co-ops, their system was baked decades ago when the rural electrification programs were going on and the BLM reclamation projects,” he said. “And so a lot of that energy has been in existence, and they haven't gone beyond that that need and demand too much.”

Maggi said that building “a big dam just doesn't make sense anymore,” and supported the provision in the bill exempting any new hydropower facilities from being included in the definition of “renewable energy.” He said the inclusion of hydropower only makes up a small percentage of future RPS compliance and wouldn’t preclude NV Energy and other entities from having to meet the higher renewable standards.

“It's not peanuts; it's not a de minimis amount that we can just sort of ignore,” Maggi said. “But I think it's not enough to where the utility is not going to have to go out and build new, clean energy resources.”

The addition of hydropower will also likely be a boon to state agencies — such as the Colorado River Commission, which manages the state’s allocation of Colorado River water and hydropower created by the Hoover Dam. Eric Witkoski, the commission’s executive director, said the inclusion of hydropower would likely help the commission meet its newly required RPS target, but said he was still reviewing how the agency would be affected by having to meet the new renewable targets.

“We haven't really thought through how all of this is going to work, and it's not something we’ve had to deal with in the past, so it’s still something we’re reviewing,” he said.

Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Bronson Mack said the public agency — also now required to meet the RPS bill — was supportive of the higher RPS and that it had already been working prior to bill passage to voluntarily comply with the renewable standard.

“It’s a little early to determine how exactly how we’re going to be able to comply with the 50 percent by 2030, but we are evaluating the strategies to do that,” he said. “Certainly the inclusion of hydro does provide a little more ability for us to be able to comply with that standard.”

Brooks, the bill sponsor, said the inclusion of public agencies and hydropower was meant to give them the opportunity to sell or trade excess PECs to other energy users out of compliance with the RPS.

“This just kind of broadens that market that’s available,” he said.

Other states

Only about 3.3 percent of Nevada’s electric generation comes from hydropower, but existing limitations on what kinds of hydro generation counts towards the RPS means just under 1 percent of renewable generation comes from “small” hydro production, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy’s 2018 annual report.

Other states have varied in the amount of hydropower they allow as part of their RPS; according to a 2014 analysis by the Hydropower Reform Coalition, 37 states allow hydropower to count towards the RPS with various restrictions depending on size, technology, or if the hydropower facilities consider environmental impacts such as stream flow, fish passage or water quality.

Kelly Catlett, a director at the Hydropower Reform Coalition, said California opted to severely limit hydropower when it first adopted renewable standards, excluding any project with more than 30 megawatts of capacity and requiring any smaller-scale projects demonstrate that they don’t adversely affect river flow. She said the limitations also came from a desire to spur development of other renewable energy production.

“Simply grandfathering in existing large hydropower does nothing to incentivize the creation of new renewable energy sources,” she said.

Although the coalition's website recommends against including hydropower towards an RPS except in limited cases, Catlett said the language was slightly outdated and that electricity produced by waterpower — which is typically more reliable and not as intermittent as solar or wind energy — was an important component as states move to reduce their use of fossil fuels. She pointed toward the state’s recently passed legislation requiring 100 percent of fuel used in the state to come from “carbon-free” energy sources — something currently undefined but likely to include large-scale hydropower projects.

“I think there is a realization now that if the goal is to reduce emissions and spur new development of renewables, while we can define renewables (to exclude hydropower), maybe after a certain point it doesn’t really matter what exactly the technology is,” she said. “If it can cause reduced emissions, then that’s good.”

That sense of having the state’s RPS reflect actual renewable energy production is something that doesn’t currently happen in Nevada, where the actual fuel mix in the state typically runs behind the RPS goal. It’s why Brooks, the sponsor of the 2019 bill, said he wanted to remove “multiplier” and energy efficiency credits from the RPS to make sure that it was a more accurate reflection of renewable production.

“By the time we get to 50 by (2030), it will be 50 percent of the energy in the state coming from renewables,” he said.