‘Extremely serious:’ Federal regulators declare first-ever shortage on the Colorado River as water officials look toward a drier future

Arizona and Nevada will face first-ever cuts to their Colorado River supplies next year, federal officials reported Monday. The shortage declaration is a historic determination for a watershed parched by aridification and overuse and which supports roughly 40 million people in the Southwest, including Las Vegas. 

The cuts announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation mark a significant moment in the management of a river that stretches across seven states and two countries, winding from Wyoming to Mexico and diverted along the way for use by cities, tribes, agriculture and businesses.

In a statement, Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science, said "the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges."

“The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River," she said. "That is precisely the focus of the White House Interagency Drought Working Group — a multi-agency partnership created to collaborate with states, tribes, farmers and communities impacted by drought and climate change to build and enhance regional resilience.”

Southwest water officials have seen the cuts coming for more than a decade, going as far as to outline in detail how shortages would work in multistate agreements. But the speed at which the cuts have come has been striking for the public. This summer, the river’s two largest reservoirs — banks to store water — dropped to their lowest levels since they were first filled last century.

"At the real foundational level, we've got a water balance problem,” said Anne Castle, a fellow at the University of Colorado Law School and a former Interior Department official. “We have to use less water in order to bring the system into balance. That's the real foundational issue.”

The cuts will reduce the amount of water that Arizona and Nevada are allowed to divert from Lake Mead. The reductions in water deliveries, outlined in two major multistate agreements, will hit Arizona the hardest. The state is poised to lose nearly a fifth of its Colorado River supply, and agricultural producers in central Arizona are expected to face particularly challenging cuts.

In Nevada, the shortage declaration will not affect day-to-day water use, yet current and former Las Vegas water officials stress that the situation on the Colorado River is a serious one for the entire Southwest. The river accounts for about 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s drinking water. 

In an interview, John Entsminger, who runs the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the drought on the Colorado River is “extremely serious.” But, he added, it is important to recognize that the water authority’s resource plan shows a “safe and secure water supply through 2071.”

Beyond the practical implications, researchers and experts who study the Colorado River said the unprecedented shortage, amid an ongoing drought during a summer where the effects of climate change have been on full display, should serve as a warning for the whole Southwest.

Climate change is stressing an already overworked system. Hotter temperatures and prolonged drought are having a significant effect on not only how much precipitation accumulates on the mountains that feed the Colorado River, but also how snow runs off into the waterways that feed the river.

Entsminger said the greatest long-term risks to the Colorado River, from the water authority’s perspective, “are climate change impacting the amount of water that’s in the river and the ability or inability of seven states and the country of Mexico to adapt to those changing conditions.” 

The cuts are tied to the level of Lake Mead, based on a projection released each August. If that model shows the reservoir below 1075 feet above sea level in January of the next year, a first tier of cuts will kick in. This year, the model projects that the reservoir will hit 1,065.85 feet in January.

If snowpack accumulates in the headwaters of the Colorado River this winter, it could stave off further cuts. Yet record-low reservoirs put the watershed in a difficult position moving ahead.

“We’re dangling our toes over the edge at this point,” said Pat Mulroy, who managed the water authority for two decades and now serves as a senior fellow at the UNLV Boyd School of Law. 

The cuts come as Colorado River water managers face tough negotiations in the coming years over the future of a watershed facing a more arid future and less water to go around. So critical are the negotiations that there is intense discussion about the process for how they will proceed.

In 2007, the last time Colorado River managers agreed to operating guidelines for the river, the 29 federally-recognized tribes within the watershed were left out of the process, despite having rights to about 20 percent of the river.

With a new round of negotiations approaching, Nora McDowell, a project manager for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said that each tribal government should have a spot at the negotiating table.

“It's been an unbalanced approach. And I think a more balanced approach — the inclusion of the tribes — is critical and needs to be a key part of the negotiations coming up,” she said.

An official with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river, said in June that their “intent is to have an open and inclusive process” for upcoming negotiations. 

But what does that look like as states have already begun, at least informally, to lay down their markers? And how does it comport with a culture, among water users, of dealmaking in closed negotiating rooms or the hallways of Caesars Palace at an annual Colorado River conference?

“If it is true consultation, each of the tribes should have a seat at the table,” McDowell added. “Whether the government wants to have that or not, there’s no question about it: They should.”

What is clear is that water users across the basin must plan for a future where there is less to go around. The challenge is how to do that within the confines of current demands and existing rights, said Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. 

“Fundamentally, I think there needs to be a consensus that we are entering a drier future and our discussions really have to start from there,” Porter said during an interview last week. 

A sprinkler waters ornamental grass in Summerlin on Monday, June 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

In Las Vegas, the water authority is continuing to focus on conservation actions, like reminding residents that fall water restrictions go into effect on Sept. 1 and removing ornamental turf from the valley by 2026. This approach, water officials say, is why Las Vegas is prepared for the cuts. 

Of all the states that use the Colorado River, Nevada has the smallest allocation of just 300,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is the amount of water that can fill one acre to a depth of one foot). To put it in perspective, Arizona and California are entitled to 2.8 and 4.4 million acre-feet, respectively. 

Even with a small supply, Las Vegas has stretched it out through reuse — with water to spare. Because the water authority recycles most of its indoor water and with aggressive conservation measures in place, Nevada is already using about 50,000 acre-feet less than the full allocation. 

That means Las Vegas will be able to weather the cuts, which reduce the state’s allocation by 21,000 acre-feet next year. Further cuts could reduce Nevada’s allocation by 30,000 acre-feet. 

But the stability of Southern Nevada’s water supply rests on what happens over the next few years. Las Vegas has reduced use while hardening its infrastructure. With a third intake in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada can physically draw water from the reservoir under extreme conditions.

In the hopes of freeing up more Colorado River water, Las Vegas officials have also invested in a water recycling project with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That project could be buoyed by the infrastructure bill, which includes funding for large-scale water recycling.

A construction crew is lowered into the Southern Nevada Water Authority's low-level-pumping station access shaft near Lake Mead on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

At the same time, Clark County is looking to plan for new growth, updating its antiquated Master Plan and development code while pushing to open up thousands of acres of federal public land for homes and businesses. Las Vegas is not alone. Officials in other Southwestern states also anticipate new growth. Over decades, new growth will continue to stretch the water budget. 

In recent decades, municipalities, including Las Vegas, have continued to grow their populations while keeping overall water use in check by reducing per-capita demand through conservation. 

"The cities in the Southwest have shown that population growth doesn't have to mean more water use,” Castle said last week. “And Las Vegas has done that particularly successfully.”

But growth across the Colorado River Basin concerns some conservationists and social justice groups. They worry that having more people dependent on the river will only add further strain.

“Instead of two million dependents, they will have three million dependents,” John Weisheit, a Utah-based conservationist with Living Rivers, said, referring to Las Vegas growth projections.

"Cities don't have to grow for the sake of growth,” he added.

Over the past year, Las Vegas has doubled-down on its conservation measures, requiring the removal of decorative turf — grass in medians and roundabouts — by 2026. The prohibition, passed by the Legislature, came as part of a recognition that voluntary conservation was no longer going to be enough. To pass the legislation, the water authority got buy-in from major business groups, convinced the measure was necessary as Clark County looks to grow. 

At the same time, Las Vegas is still reliant on the Colorado River for a majority of its water.

“Vegas comes the closest to having solved their own problems but being entirely dependent on the greater Colorado River system to solve its problems,” said John Fleck, a water researcher at the University of New Mexico whose work focuses on the river. 

The fact that Las Vegas depends so heavily on its Colorado River allocation makes the coming negotiations important. The negotiations will center around creating the playbook for operating the river in a drier future (the current guidelines for operating the river are set to expire in 2026).  

Boaters wait to launch at Lake Mead's Hemmingway Harbor on Friday, June 25, 2021. A sign warns boaters of low lake levels. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Experts said those negotiations have already started, at least in some respects, as states talk to each other and alliances around common interests appear to be forming between water users.

Entsminger said he likens the negotiations to a “very big wedding” with “a lot of tables, and lots of people moving around between the tables.” The negotiations do not happen all at once.

“One of the fundamental mistakes people misunderstand about the negotiation process is that there is one single table where these negotiations are being made,” Entsminger said. 

What is on the table — the range of discussion — is another open question. 

Entsminger said that he would like the negotiations to look several decades out. Doing so, he argued, would give water users the certainty to make much-needed investments in the river. 

“I think you need what I referred to as a sliding scale of operations,” he said. “I think you need shortage measures in the Lower Basin that account for extremely bad hydrology, like Lake Mead operating below 1000 feet, for instance. But I also think you need operations in place if you have extremely wet years. You see some climate scientists say the 21st century in the Rocky Mountains might vacillate between extreme drought and extreme floods.”

And at the center of the negotiations are several long-standing technical, yet consequential, issues about how the river is to be allocated and operated, especially under climate change. A recent working paper examined the legal issues around some of these ongoing controversies. 

Mulroy said the current discussion should be expanded to look at augmenting the system. She said the current approach, focused on reducing particular demands, is not going to be enough.

“Everybody’s talking about conservation and buying [agricultural] water or leasing ag water or partnering with ag,” Mulroy said in a recent interview. “All that is wonderful. But it’s not enough. I mean, at some point, we have to have a serious discussion of augmenting the system.”

As to what augmentation looks like, she said everything should be on the table. But during the interview, she specifically mentioned desalinization. Others, including officials in Arizona, are looking seriously at augmentation strategies, even holding public meetings on the subject. 

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, speaks during a news conference with other Colorado River Basin officials at Hoover Dam on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

At the same time, groups are calling on officials close to the negotiations to seriously recognize the limits of the river and to plan for worst-case scenarios included in climate change models.

“It's one river,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which represents a coalition of rural and environmental interests. “But entities want to manage it as seven or nine different rivers. Nevada's fate being tied to other states is unquestionable.”

Last month, his group helped lead a demonstration of environmentalists, elected leaders and Laughlin business officials at the Hoover Dam. Tick Segerblom, a Clark County Commissioner and a water authority board member, joined the group, as did J.B. Hamby, who sits on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single water user of the Colorado River. 

They called for a moratorium on new dams and diversions that could further strain the shrinking supply. The coalition criticized Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline, a controversial plan to pipe water from Lake Powell to a fast-growing area of Southern Utah, which includes St. George. 

When looking at the Lake Powell Pipeline, growth and other projects, Roerink said officials need to think differently about the limits of the river. How much new development can it really sustain?

"I view it as society has a lot of hard questions to ask itself and its leaders,” Roerink said last week. “What we've seen in past years is band-aids over gunshot wounds. The question now is are we going to keep doing the same thing over and over again? We're truly at a tipping point.”

McDowell, a former chairperson of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said that’s one of the reasons it is so important to include other voices in the negotiations. Decision-makers, in the past, have not always managed the river with everyone’s interests in mind. She would like to see the river’s environment managed in a more holistic way, rather than have it be used as an economic tool.

"There have to be more laws in place to preserve the quality of the river and the health of the river,” McDowell said. “They have to look at it as a human being. It's the lifeblood for everyone who uses the river.”

What does a Colorado River shortage look like for the agency managing Lake Mead?

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Last month, Lake Mead fell to its lowest level since the reservoir, held back by the Hoover Dam, was filled in the 1930s. Since then, water levels have fallen lower, and it’s about 35 percent full. 

A large chalky band of rock, known as the bathtub ring, marks where water once sat when the reservoir was full. Today, the bathtub ring is a visible imprint of the long-term drought across the Colorado River watershed, which overlaps with seven Southwestern states and Mexico. 

It is also a symbol of how climate change is affecting a river system that supports more than 40 million people in the Southwest. As drier conditions and warmer temperatures produce a less efficient runoff in the Rocky Mountains, long-time Colorado River experts are urging state and federal water managers to take climate science seriously as they plan for the future.

Lake Mead is visited by many people for different reasons. It is a recreation area managed by the National Park Service. The Hoover Dam is a tourist attraction, a symbol and a power plant that ships hydropower across the West. The reservoir is also a water bank for the Southwest.

That pool of banked water is managed by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency is hardly a household name for many Americans, but it plays an important role in managing water projects in the West and ensuring that U.S. states downstream of Hoover Dam — Arizona, California and Nevada — get their legal allotments of Colorado River water. 

Those allotments are sorted out through a series of agreements and guidelines known as “The Law of the River.” Drawing on those documents, the agency, which operates Lake Mead and other reservoirs — including Lake Powell — accounts for how water is released. It is also the agency responsible for deciding whether to declare a shortage on the Colorado River. 

How that is determined is somewhat complicated. It is based on a modeling report, known as the August 24-Month Study, that forecasts hydrological conditions at the reservoir. But what’s important is that the agency is expected to declare a shortage in August, triggering cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year. Those cuts could deepen if the lake levels fall further, triggering eventual cutbacks for California, which has senior water rights over other states.

These cuts are not entirely unexpected. States have been planning for them, outlining how the cuts would work in Drought Contingency Plans approved in 2019. But they have come faster than many expected with record dry conditions and less water running off into the river this year. They  also come as states prepare to negotiate new rules for managing the Colorado River system. 

What does this all mean for the agency that runs Hoover Dam and Lake Mead? 

On a warm Friday last month, I talked with Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official who helps manage Colorado River water deliveries, in a conference room that overlooks the lake. 

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Does the perception of the issue match the reality? Bunk, the chief of the Boulder Canyon Operations Office, said for the most part, it does, calling the lake level “a serious situation.”

“[The lake is] about 140 feet or so below full pool right now and most of our projections, looking forward, don't show it recovering too easily,” Bunk said. “So it’s a serious situation, and a concerning situation. But on the other side of it is that we are prepared.”

Bunk said the agency, which is in the Department of Interior, is working closely with Colorado River states, water districts, tribes, Mexico officials and non-governmental organizations. 

The states, he said, have done important planning to prepare for the cuts and decrease overall water use. He stressed continued collaboration, saying that he ”felt confident that whatever new challenges come in the future, we're going to be able to work together and find a solution for it.”

The agency’s role in negotiating new Colorado River guidelines: The current guidelines for operating the Colorado River expire in 2026, and water managers are already setting the table for negotiating a new set of agreements to operate a river with less water to go around. 

Bunk said the agency is likely to play a major role in those talks. He noted that the secretary of Interior is the federal water master in the Lower Colorado River Basin, which includes Nevada. 

“We'll definitely be playing a large role in those discussions and leading that process,” Bunk said. “Our intent is to have an open and inclusive process with all of our different partners and stakeholders. We haven't kicked that process off yet. But we’ve been working on getting those lines of communications open as we prepare to get those discussions going.”

What does a shortage actually look like from a day-to-day standpoint? Bunk said not much will change about the day-to-day logistics of managing the reservoir because future shortage cuts will be incorporated from the outset — when the agency approves annual water orders for each state. Bunk said that typically starts in the fall, prior to when the cuts would go into effect. 

“We’ve been coordinating really closely with those water users that might be affected by a shortage next year, so they’re aware of what’s coming,” Bunk said. “And I know that certain water districts, like the Central Arizona Project in Arizona, have been working with the state of Arizona on coordinating with their customers in Arizona on an upcoming shortage.”

A need for further cuts before new guidelines are negotiated? The Drought Contingency Plan outlined mandatory cuts that the states would have to make if Lake Mead dropped below certain levels. The plan was meant as a stopgap measure to prevent Lake Mead from falling to extremely low levels as water users negotiate the more comprehensive post-2026 guidelines. 

But some question whether the cuts go far enough. If dry hydrology persists, lake levels could continue to fall precipitously. Would that prompt negotiations for a secondary shortage plan?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Bunk said. 

“However,” he added, “we've barely started to implement our current agreements.”

Still, Bunk noted that there is a process in place. Both the drought plan and the operating guidelines for the river include “safeguards” that require water managers and the federal government to come back to the drawing board if Lake Mead drops below certain thresholds.

A sign at the Hoover Dam warns visitors of excessive heat on Friday, June 25, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY

The bad kind of positive feedback: A new paper published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change looks at the relationship between lower spring humidity and hotter summers across the Southwest. As InsideClimateNews’ Judy Fahys reports, researchers showed “the hottest days in the summer months are getting dramatically drier as a result of the Southwestern spring heating up and leaving less moisture behind to cool the summer through evaporation.”

Carbon emissions data in real-time: Reno is turning to a new company, Ledger8760, to track carbon emissions data from local public buildings in accordance with official standards from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Our reporter Zach Bright has more. 

‘The loss of home once again:’ A must-read piece about the ways in which climate change is disproportionately affecting Native communities and the federal government’s role. “While other communities struggle on a warming planet, Native tribes are experiencing an environmental peril exacerbated by policies — first imposed by white settlers and later the United States government — that forced them onto the country’s least desirable lands. And now, climate change is quickly making that marginal land uninhabitable. The first Americans face the loss of home once again,” Christopher Flavelle and Kalen Goodluck write in the New York Times.

MGM Resorts goes solar (during the day): MGM Resorts International unveiled a solar array last week that has the capacity to generate up to 90 percent of the daytime power used by the company’s 13 Las Vegas properties, the Associated Press’ Sam Metz reported. 

As we look at another week of extreme heat, it’s worth checking out this excellent piece from Fox 5, which looks at what legal rights renters have when A/C units break. 

Planning for heat and climate change: Two academic experts on urban heat wrote an op-ed this week for the Thomsen Reuters Foundation calling on cities large and small to plan for more heatwaves. One interesting note in the piece: Miami-Dade County created a position dedicated to tackling urban heat and the city of Phoenix has an office focused on heat mitigation. 

Conservation group Basin and Range Watch reported this week that after 80 desert tortoises were relocated for a solar project, 26 had been killed, according to federal land managers. 

WATER

Plastic foam balls found in Tahoe: Last week, thousands of polystyrene balls were found at Moon Dune beach in Lake Tahoe. They were quickly cleaned up. The culprit: A pool floatie. The League to Save Lake Tahoe asked local retailers to pull the product, as plastic pollution can harm the lake’s ecosystem and pose a potential threat to wildlife. The group has also focused on getting stores to pull float toys that can contain glitter. Katie Dowd at SFGATE has more.

Last week, a flash flood hit Overton with water four to five feet deep in some areas, via KLAS

The drought and growing almonds: “For years the nuts have been one of California’s star crops, exported in bulk and used in food products throughout the supermarket. Now, farmers in parched parts of the state are bulldozing thousands of acres’ worth of almond orchards that cannot be irrigated, and dropping plans to plant more as they confront what farmers say could be a hotter, drier future,” Jesse Newman at the Wall Street Journal writes. 

Water authority pushes for more conservation amid drought: Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger wrote an op-ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal calling on residents to double-down on conservation amid drought. Touting recent conservation successes, he wrote “conservation is a journey — not a destination — and our community’s conservation journey continues.” The op-ed mentions a partnership the agency is looking at with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The Review-Journal’s Blake Apgar wrote a piece about the project and legislation to potentially open up federal funding.

Metropolitan Water District’s new general manager recently talked to NBC News 4 in L.A. about his focus on reducing Southern California’s reliance on imported water.

The drought is hitting Little Washoe Lake hard and state wildlife managers are working to understand why the impacts appear to be so severe. KRNV in Reno has more on the issue. 

PUBLIC LAND AND WILDLIFE

What Ammon Bundy’s campaign for Idaho governor looks like: In 2018, Ryan Bundy ran for governor in Nevada. Now Ammon Bundy is running for governor in Idaho. “He wants to use the governorship to wrest ownership of federal land for state control,” Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts write in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a campaign aimed at voters dreaming of wide open spaces and homes they can afford, wrapped in an idealized view of western life where land and resources are limited only by an unwillingness to use them.”

Pacific Southwest Regional Forester to lead U.S. Forest Service: “Veteran forester Randy Moore has been named chief of the U.S. Forest Service, the first African American to lead the agency in its 116-year history,” the Associated Press’ Matthew Brown reports. 

Pest control power washing at Greater Nevada Field may have violated the Migratory Bird Act, the Reno Gazette Journal’s Amy Alonzo reports. 

MINING

GM sees lithium in the Salton Sea: “General Motors on Friday announced it will partner with a renewable energy company's lithium and power development in the Salton Sea Geothermal Field near Imperial for batteries for electric vehicles,” the Desert Sun’s Janet Wilson writes. 

Ioneer, the company looking to develop a lithium project near Tonopah, received an air quality permit from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (via the Pahrump Valley Times).  The company is at the center of a permitting dispute over a rare plant, the Tiehm’s buckwheat, which grows on only 10 acres in Nevada and is threatened by lithium mining. Ioneer also said it signed an offtake agreement to deliver lithium carbonate to a South Korean company (Reuters).

With new law, Las Vegas water agency bets on ‘aggressive municipal water conservation measure' to remove decorative turf, conserve Colorado River supply

The backdrop for the legislation was set hundreds of miles away from Carson City, where the Colorado River meets Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas. 

Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations. 

With Lake Mead approaching critically-low levels, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recently turned to the Legislature to double-down on its existing strategy for using less water: turf removal.

Earlier this year, Las Vegas water planners asked the Legislature to pass a new law that prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks. Lawmakers approved it with little opposition and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill on Friday. 

Now, the water authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area, is tasked with implementing what its general manager, John Entsminger, described as probably “the most aggressive municipal water conservation measure that's been taken in the western United States.” 

For decades, the water authority has been looking at the prolonged drought and preparing for shortages. Officials with the agency stress that they are able to weather the expected cuts because Las Vegas is already consuming less water than it is entitled to use.

But they are also looking to a future where the population of Las Vegas continues to grow — Nevada is one of the fastest-growing states — as climate change poses new challenges for managing an overused river system shared by about 40 million people across the Southwest. 

The legislation, AB356, aims 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. Ornamental, or nonfunctional, turf typically refers to grass that is installed for decorative purposes and is rarely walked on or used.

Entsminger, in a recent interview, said the prohibition would result in significant water savings. The removal of an estimated 3,900 acres of decorative turf could save roughly 9.3 billion gallons of water annually — about 10 percent of the state’s entire Colorado River allotment.

“Being able to save 10 percent of our total water supplies, without really impacting any quality of life, is really a tremendous achievement and a benefit for the overall community,” he said.

In Carson City and elsewhere, politics around water are often fractious. State-backed proposals to change water law died early into the legislative session. But the water authority’s plan earned broad buy-in from rural and urban lawmakers, industry groups and environmental groups, even some of the same people who have criticized the agency’s legislative maneuvering in the past. 

“It’s an old trope in Nevada politics that your enemy one day is your friend the next day,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of water users who supported the effort. “That doesn’t foreclose on the fact that we could be at odds again down the road as it relates to water policy. In this specific case, I was thrilled to work with them.”

Ornamental grass in The Lakes on Monday, June 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Addressing decorative turf

The water authority serves more than 2 million residents and the millions of tourists who come to Las Vegas each year. To understand where the decorative turf is and how much water it uses, the agency uses aerial imaging that reveals where water is evaporating.

“And then we use that data to make estimates of how much [ornamental turf] we think is in each sector,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the water authority. 

The agency estimates, for instance, that about 1,500 acres of decorative turf exists within the footprint of multi-family residences, a category that includes apartment buildings. About 1,000 acres of the turf exist at commercial and industrial properties. 

In an arid climate like Las Vegas, one that is only predicted to become warmer as the climate continues to change, the amount of water consumed to irrigate grass can add up quickly. 

A square-foot of grass needs about 73 gallons of water each year to survive. The legislation would require the removal of about 3,900 acres of decorative turf (the final version of the bill exempts single-family residences). Assuming all of the grass is converted to desert landscaping, which uses about 18 gallons each year, the bill would save about 9.3 billion gallons of water.

For years, the water authority has offered cash incentives to residents and businesses looking to convert turf to desert-friendly landscaping. But in an era of cutting back, the program has run into its limits, as Entsminger noted at a water authority board meeting earlier this year.

The agency has met resistance from homeowners associations who see decorative turf as an appealing feature, Entsminger said. At the board meeting, the agency presented one response from the Altura community within Summerlin: “...our community chose Altura for the beautiful green entrance. As we are well aware there is not much of it unless you live on a golf course. With that said, Altura is declining to move forward with the proposed turf replacement.” 

The water authority also encounters other types of challenges in removing decorative turf. Apartment buildings and commercial properties sometimes have a diffuse ownership structure — governed by layers of LLCs — or out-of-state owners who are accustomed to grass-centric landscaping.

Water authority officials say those ownership dynamics can make it challenging for the agency to contact a property owner about decorative turf. In other cases, out-of-state property owners, unfamiliar with the arid climate of the Southwest, might not understand the severity of the issue. 

In all, turf removal has declined since the 2000s and stayed below the water authority’s goal of converting at least 150 acres per year, even after the agency increased the rebates in 2018.

“The era where just carrots are going to get [us to] where we need to get is coming to the end,” Entsminger said during the March board meeting. “We’re going to have to use some sticks.” 

The water authority board, comprising local elected officials, agreed. In addition to the issues around turf removal, Entsminger raised another argument for acting: consumptive use — the total amount of water used by Las Vegas and not recycled in Lake Mead — ticked up in 2020. 

“We’re probably going to have to make some harder decisions this year to right the curve,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who chairs the agency’s board and the Clark County Commission. 

An example of a vegetation classification analysis, which allows the Southern Nevada Water Authority to spot water use. Yellow polygons with markings are used to locate grass. Yellow polygons with no markings are used to show trees. Purple polygons show pools, and blue polygons display pool covers. (Provided courtesy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Flipping the script in Carson City

Before Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas) was elected to the Legislature and came to chair the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, he worked with the Great Basin Water Network. The advocacy group is best known for fighting against the Las Vegas water authority’s decades-long effort to pump rural groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to urban Las Vegas. 

Now, as chairman of the legislative committee, the roles were reversed. Watts actively helped the water authority get its legislation to the governor’s desk. During an interview in his Carson City office last month, Watts described the new law as “hugely significant in a couple of ways.”

Watts said he viewed the turf removal legislation as “the next step in a paradigm shift for the Southern Nevada Water Authority", one where more emphasis is placed on conservation of its existing Colorado River supplies, rather than importing new supplies.

“I worked for a long time to try and get the authority to move away from the pipeline project in eastern Nevada, which they’ve done,” Watts said. “As a result, they know that the Colorado River is their primary source of water for the foreseeable future — and we need to do more to protect and enhance that source.” 

When the legislative session began in February, none of the proposed bills addressed Colorado River conservation — at least directly.

But one bill, AB356, proposed by the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, looked at water issues more broadly. The bill, as it was originally proposed, aimed to create a conservation credit system for managing water rights. At the same time, there were rumblings that the water authority wanted its own conservation bill.

The market-based approach in AB356, along with companion legislation (AB354) to establish water banks, was received with skepticism from conservationists, ranchers and farmers. They were concerned the state’s proposal was not fully vetted and could lead to speculative behavior.

In that opposition, the water authority saw an opening. 

In April, a few weeks after the agency’s board meeting, water authority lobbyist Andy Belanger proposed an amendment to AB356 that replaced the original bill with the turf removal program. 

At the meeting where the water authority introduced the idea, a group of key players came out to back the amendment: The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and local governments. Environmental advocates quickly backed the plan, too. The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, released a supportive statement that same day.

With Watts’ help, AB356 was amended to become the water authority’s bill. It eventually passed unanimously in the Senate. It then passed on a largely party-line 30 to 12 vote in the Assembly, with four Republicans voting in favor. On Friday, Sisolak signed the bill into law.

“It's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” Sisolak told reporters last week. 

Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), well-known in the Legislature for having vast knowledge of Nevada water law and being a critic of the water authority’s pipeline project, voted in favor of the bill.

In an interview, he said the numbers the water authority presented spoke for themselves. They showed significant savings.

Goicoechea initially raised concerns that removing that much grass from the valley could increase surface temperatures, but he said he was assured by the water authority’s plans to offset those impacts with the planting of new trees on drip irrigation.

“It clearly is an area that has to be addressed,” he said, referring to nonfunctional turf. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Setting the stage for a drier future

Now the challenge is implementing the turf removal program.

The legislation leaves much of that up to the water authority’s board of local elected officials. But it also calls for the creation of a Nonfunctional Turf Removal Advisory Committee. Most importantly, it sets a target date about five years from now — Dec. 31, 2026 — for the removal of most of the 3,900 acres of grass.

That year is also important for the Colorado River.

Existing rules for how to manage Lake Mead and the Colorado River expire in 2026. Leaders from the seven states that use the river, Colorado River tribes, environmental groups, agricultural interests and developers are gearing up for negotiations over how water from the river is managed as climate change increases the risk of shortages. 

In a recent interview, Entsminger said the situation is serious, but that the agency is preparing for cuts by lowering demand. The turf removal legislation is one of several programs. He said  removing the 3,900 acres of turf would nearly offset the deepest cuts the water authority agreed to under the Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement that spells out tiered cuts during drought.

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” he said. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

For developers and environmental groups, there is also another side of an equation: Growth. Eyeing population growth, Clark County is actively looking to increase the Las Vegas footprint.

Conserved water can also serve as a new water supply. Roerink, who leads the Great Basin Water Network, said it was not lost on him that the business community, including homebuilders and the Vegas Chamber, came out in strong support of the legislation to remove decorative turf. But he warned about the rush to put conserved water back into use for homes or new developments. 

“That would be a tragic mistake,” he said. 

Watts acknowledged the concern. Several big-picture trends that are driving growth in Las Vegas and across the Southwest, he noted, and it’s important for policymakers to be prepared. It would be imprudent, he said, to allow growth and do nothing to conserve water. 

“I'll leave it to other people to debate the bigger-picture questions around how and how much we should grow,” Watts said. “But [the bill is] about addressing issues with the resource.”

Watts said his hope is that removing decorative turf could serve “as a model for the southwest and for other Colorado River-dependent communities.” 

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)

The regional significance of ripping out grass

In the West, municipal water agencies are wary of comparing their policies, sometimes for good reason. Every municipal water system is unique, even if they rely on the same water source. But many agencies have encouraged their customers to reconsider lawns.

Oftentimes, these rules apply to new development, said Peter Mayer, an expert in municipal water management who runs WaterDM, a consulting firm based in Colorado. What makes the water authority’s turf removal program significant is that it applies to existing decorative turf. 

“The startling part of this proposal is the concept of removing existing turf,” he said.

Mayer said removing ornamental turf could put Las Vegas, which already uses a small amount of Colorado River water, in a powerful position as Colorado River negotiators meet to discuss how to manage the river after 2026. Las Vegas officials can now point to the clear and aggressive measures they have taken to ensure the sustainability of the river. 

“That's a powerful position to take, especially when you've got upstream neighbors, such as Utah and Washington County, where they are proposing additional withdrawals,” he said.

For years, Utah’s Washington County, which includes St. George, has sought to permit a project that would divert Colorado River water from Lake Powell to southern Utah.

There are other less tangible benefits to removing turf. 

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, said removing decorative turf helps remind people in the Southwest that they live in an arid climate. 

“It helps to change the local population's perception of where they live,” she said. 

Water managers, she noted, are often wary of one-size-fits-all solutions. Different water agencies have different portfolios and demands. For instance, some cities within the Colorado River Basin rely on other water supplies, not just the Colorado River.

"At the same time, I think people can learn from each other, and I'm using people on purpose, because it's both water managers and also landscaping managers and communities,” she said.

In addition to leading the water authority, Entsminger serves as the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association. He declined to say whether other cities should adopt similar turf standards, but he said “everyone on the Colorado River, in all economic sectors, is going to have to use less water.”

"I think everybody has to use less water,” Entsminger said. “And if they want to choose having turf in a traffic circle over some other sector of their economy, then that’s their decision. But our decision is to really focus on the removal of this nonfunctional turf.”

Sprinklers water turf in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Our roads were built for cars, but a new law could start to make them safer for cyclists

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

The 81st Legislative session came to a close Monday night (updates later on in the newsletter). But first: A special shoutout to my colleagues Michelle Rindels, Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller who led our legislative coverage with major help from our interns Jannelle Calderón and Sean Golonka. I was in awe of the excellent work they did covering this unusual (half-virtual) but consequential session that ended with a (surprising or maybe not) mining tax. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Throughout the last year, as COVID-19 restrictions limited transportation and exercise options,  more and more people turned to bikes. At this point, the trend has been well-documented in reports of bicycle shortages and in data released by exercise apps that track user fitness.

The trend is welcome news for cycling advocates and transportation planners who have long pushed to make neighborhoods more conducive for getting around using multiple modes of transportation. But it also underscored the need to make roads safer for all who rely on them.

The Nevada Office of Traffic Safety reported 10 cyclist fatalities and 83 pedestrian fatalities in 2020, with the large majority of them occurring in Clark County. That marked an increase from 2019, when there were seven cyclist fatalities and 70 pedestrian fatalities, according to the office.

Last year, on U.S. Highway 95 outside Las Vegas, a box truck killed five cyclists riding with a safety vehicle. It was a tragic incident, and the news rippled across the community — in Las Vegas and elsewhere. As John Glionna wrote in The New York Times this year, it galvanized activists to push for policies aimed at better protecting cyclists and pedestrians on the road. 

The Legislature meets for 120 days every other year. There are systemic issues that lawmakers must grapple with. The budget. Tax policy. Funding for education and health care. All of those things often grab the big headlines, for good reason. But lawmakers in Carson City also pass a flurry of subject-specific bills, often small tweaks that can make a hugely meaningful difference.

SB285 is one of those bills. The legislation, awaiting Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature, aims to address bicycle and pedestrian safety by making a number of small (but significant) changes to statute. It’s not a panacea, but activists see it as a step in the right direction.

“The goal is to be as inclusive as possible,” said Senator Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor. “The road has to be shared by multiple modes of transportation, and we want to make sure everybody has the ability to get around the way that they so choose.”

Notably, the bill addresses an underlying issue: Driver’s ed. The fact is many people don’t know the rules of the roads for cyclists and pedestrians. SB285 requires driver’s education courses to incorporate rules for other types of transportation, including electric bikes and electric scooters. 

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who worked on the bill, said Tuesday that “education is the most important piece of making sure that our cyclists and pedestrians are safe.” 

But education is only one element of the bill. The legislation also aims to address driving rules and infrastructure. Following what other states have done, the legislation allows drivers to pass bikes in a no-passing zone, if it is safe to do so. The legislation also spells out when it’s not safe for bikers to ride on the rightmost part of the lane — and can accordingly use the full lane.

Clark County, Jones noted, adopted a similar ordinance around managing traffic a few months ago. But, Jones said, “it’s an important step forward to have some baseline across the state.”

Finally, the legislation looks at how transportation is planned and constructed. It adds language around the implementation of “complete streets” programs, which aim to operate roads for all users and incorporate different types of transportation. SB285 states that projects undertaken through such programs must, when possible, “integrate bicycle lands and bicycle routes, facilities and signs into all plans, designs, construction and maintenance of roads.” In addition, the legislation requires designs to consider people of “all ages and abilities.”

“We understand that more people of more varied ages and abilities will start — or continue — to walk and bike when safer streets are provided through programs like complete streets,” Anne Macquarie, representing the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, wrote in written testimony last month.

Several other pieces of legislation passed during the session could also make streets safer and more accommodating for different types of transportation. AB54, approved by Sisolak, would create an Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety within the Department of Transportation. AB343 would require large counties (Clark and Washoe) to submit plans to conduct “walking audits” of urban areas with an eye toward public health. And AB362 would allow Clark County’s regional transportation commission to provide microtransit as part of its slate of transportation options. 

Legislative reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


WATER AND LAND

Lake Mead’s changing shores: Arizona Republic reporter Ian James wrote an excellent piece about the on-the-ground impacts of water-level declines. “At the bustling marinas in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the shifting shorelines require costly and elaborate work: pulling the marinas out with cables and winches, extending power lines and fuel lines, using divers to unhook giant concrete anchors and dispatching barges to lower new anchors into the water.” 

  • An inside look at the Hoover Dam holding back less and less water (Arizona Republic)
  • “Climate science indicates that there will likely be less water in the Colorado River than many had hoped. This is inconvenient for 21st-century decision-makers, and overcoming their resistance may be the hardest challenge of all.” In a new editorial, John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, and Brad Udall, a climate researcher at Colorado State University, stress the need to allow science to guide Colorado River planning and incorporate “worst-case” climate scenarios.
  • Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger testifies on the “real and urgent” drought conditions facing the Colorado River. (Nevada Current)

Picking a new Southern California water chief: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California considered former water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy to lead the agency. Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth has more on the contested vote and what it means. 

Legislation to require wildlife plans with development: The Legislature passed AB211, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), aimed at protecting wildlife. The bill requires developers to submit plans about how they intend to offset new development on species habitat. Brian Bahouth, with the Sierra Nevada Ally, has more on the legislation. 

Douglas County commissioners declare drought conditions, via Carson Now.

  • PBS Newshour’s William Brangham and Courtney Norris on the western drought. From the report: “2021 is shaping up to potentially be the driest of all of the drought years in the last century, and definitely one of the driest of the last millennium.”

“We’ve recovered mastodons:” Capital Public Radio’s Rich Ibarra writes about the discovery of an exhaustive fossil deposit. It’s located in California at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.


MINING AND ENERGY

A mining tax compromise: In the final days of the legislative session, a deal emerged on a mining tax that avoided advancing one of three proposed constitutional amendments, which would have gone before voters. My colleagues Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels reported on the deal, how it advanced and why several Republicans came to vote for the new mining tax. We’ll have more reporting on the tax, what it means and who it affects in the coming weeks.

Energy policy advances out of the Legislature: A major bill SB448, focused on transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, passed and is on Sisolak’s desk. Riley Snyder wrote more about the bill, and we’ll have a follow-up coming out on that soon. On Monday, the Senate also approved AB383, which sought to address energy efficiency standards in appliances.

Groups file injunction to stop lithium mine: Conservation groups want a federal court judge to issue an injunction that would prevent any construction of the Thacker Pass mine after they said negotiations with land managers and a company fell apart. (Great Basin Resource Watch)

CLIMATE CHANGE

How auto dealers are viewing the state’s efforts to increase emission standards, via the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis. The state held a session on its clean car initiative last week. 

The Truckee Meadows Community College was featured in an Inside Higher Ed piece a few weeks ago looking at how campuses are preparing for the effects of climate change.

“It's really bad for us:” Water managers prepare for extreme drought across the state

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


For the past few weeks, I’ve heard variations of the same line: “This is one of the worst water years I’ve seen in a long time.” The drought is visible on the ground. There is less snow on the mountains and less water running off into streams. Soil is dry and reservoirs are far below full.

Exactly how challenging is this water year, and how is Nevada responding to it? For this week’s newsletter, we include perspectives from across the state. It’s important to note that drought affects different parts of the state in different ways, depending on where water is coming from and how it’s being used. But with extreme to exceptional drought affecting about 75 percent of Nevada, arid conditions are not limited to only a few pockets of the state.

Live in Las Vegas, Reno or Carson City, and you might not always think about where your water is coming from when you turn on the tap. In many cases, it starts with the snowpack. The water that comes out of your sink and shower often comes from snow melting into rivers and streams. 

And this year, across the state, the amount of water flowing through streams is projected to be far lower than average. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which compiles statewide water supply reports, expects that streamflow will be 7 to 61 percent of average for May to July (the big range accounts for different conditions across the state). 

Jeff Anderson, an NRCS water supply specialist, who helped compile and prepare the report, said the forecast has decreased each month, in part because Nevada saw little rain and snow during the spring. In the 12-month period between May 2020 through April 2021, Nevada and other Western states recorded their driest years since 1895. But that’s not the full story. 

Snowpack was well-below normal, but the soil underneath it was also dry. When soils are dry, it reduces the amount of water that makes it into streams. Instead, more water is absorbed by the parched landscape, and with little precipitation last fall, soil moisture was below average.

“The soil moisture is making the runoff different than it otherwise would be,” Anderson said. 

With less water making it into streams and rivers, urban and rural water users across the state are closely watching the situation and implementing drought measures.

In Northern Nevada, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), which serves Reno and Sparks, held a press conference last week to announce new conservation measures, including additional public outreach, lawn watering restrictions from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and hiring more “water watchers” to patrol whether residents are complying with the conservation rules. 

TMWA gets most of its water from the mountains around Lake Tahoe, where snow melts into the tributaries that form the Truckee River. At a critical point on the river, flows are expected to be about 22 percent of average, and water managers plan to pull water stored in reservoirs. 

“Over the last two months, these forecasts have just deteriorated significantly,” said Bill Hauck, a senior hydrologist for TMWA and the agency’s water supply administrator.

By August, Hauck said the amount of water flowing through Reno will drop off noticeably. But he also stressed that the water agency is prepared for drought and has water stored in reservoirs.

In and around Las Vegas, the situation is a little more complicated. Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, fed by snowpack from the Rockies. 

On the Colorado River, the situation was similar to the one that played out across Nevada. Dry soils decreased runoff, and only about 26 percent of average is expected to reach Lake Powell, a key reservoir. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is projected to drop below a key threshold, triggering the first ever federally declared shortage — and cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

Officials with the Southern Nevada Water Authority have long prepared for cutbacks. In addition, the water authority is pushing an aggressive conservation measure through the Legislature. The bill, AB356, would remove about 5,000 acres of decorative grass by 2026. Water officials expect the conservation push to save more than 10 percent of the state’s Colorado River allocation. 

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, said in an interview earlier this week. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

Farmers and ranchers are also feeling the early impacts of the drought in rural parts of the state. In Lovelock, which sits at the end of the Humboldt River, farmers are seeing less water, said Ryan Collins, who leads the Pershing County Water Conservation District. 

Rye Patch, a reservoir that the district relies on to store water, is at about 32 percent of capacity, according to the NRCS water supply outlook. Last year, it was about 85 percent full.

“It's really bad for us,” Collins said. “We're going to use what little we have in the reservoir.”

Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute, said he has observed this drought intensify faster than the one that started in 2012.

“We're in our second year into the drought, and we’re already seeing similar impacts to what we saw four years into the last drought," McEvoy said.

Here's what else I'm watching this week:


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

Governor signs bill to create state designation for “dark skies:” Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, to create a program for awarding a “Dark Sky Designation.” “The signing and implementation of the Dark Skies Bill celebrates this uniquely Nevadan asset by encouraging protection of this public resource, while also sharing it with visitors to our state and thereby increasing tourism opportunities for rural cities and counties,” Marshall said. Terri Russell from KOLO 8 has more on the legislation and the bill signing.

A mining tax deal? The Clark County Education Association is dropping cryptic hints. 


WATER AND LAND

“It’s literally the foundational shrub:” Excellent piece by Science Friday’s Lauren Young looking at the ecological importance of the sagebrush sea and the many threats facing it. 

Why water communication is important: The Record-Courier’s Kurt Hildebrand reported on some startling survey numbers: “Not quite a tenth of the residents living in the Carson River Watershed could name the river in a recent survey. Carson River Subconservancy Watershed Program Manager Brenda Hunt told Douglas County commissioners on Thursday that 62 percent either didn’t know or think they lived in a watershed at all, and that 70 percent thought they didn’t affect the watershed, or only had a slight impact.”

A dispatch from the Extraterrestrial Highway: Former Sen. Harry Reid wrote about UFOs in the New York Times: “Let me be clear: I have never intended to prove that life beyond Earth exists. But if science proves that it does, I have no problem with that. Because the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know.”

Ammon Bundy is running for governor as a Republican...in Idaho, the Idaho Statesman’s Hayat Norimine reports. Last year, Bundy was banned from stepping onto the Capitol grounds.


ENERGY AND CLIMATE

A big deal for those watching domestic mining: Reuters reporters Ernest Scheyder and Trevor Hunnicutt are reporting that the Biden administration is shifting course on its earlier statements that it would emphasize the domestic procurement of minerals needed for the energy transmission. From the story: “U.S. President Joe Biden will rely on ally countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and focus on processing them domestically into battery parts, part of a strategy designed to placate environmentalists, two administration officials with direct knowledge told Reuters.”

Remember that secret shipment of plutonium? The plutonium is still in Nevada. Reporter Colin Demarest with the Aiken Standard has an update on efforts to move the plutonium.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a geothermal project in Washoe County.

Reno-based Ormat is acquiring two existing geothermal projects and a transmission line. 

Legislative committee advances water authority proposal aimed at removing decorative turf to conserve Colorado River water

The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources voted Friday to advance a legislative proposal, pushed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to require the removal of about 5,000 acres of unused grass, an action that could save billions of gallons of Colorado River water each year. 

Lawmakers voted 8-3 to pass the measure out of committee before a key deadline. If approved by the Legislature, the new law would require the water authority’s board of directors to develop a strategy to remove unused grass — turf irrigated for purely decorative purposes — by the end of 2026. 

Removing roughly 5,000 acres of turf, currently irrigated by Colorado River water, would save about 12 billion gallons, or 36,000 acre-feet, of water each year, according to the water authority's estimates. That would amount to more than 10 percent of Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot allocation from the Colorado River. 

The measure comes at a time when water authority officials have emphasized the necessity of  conserving more water, especially as politicians in Las Vegas eye new growth and the Colorado River faces a dwindling supply amid long-term drought and warming driven by climate change.

In an interview last month, Colby Pellegrino, a deputy general manager for the water authority, said the agency’s water resource plan is based on meeting certain conservation goals. Getting rid of decorative grass in medians, along streets and at business parks is crucial to meeting those goals. 

“Water conservation is our number one, number two and number three resource,” she said.

In the past, the water authority has mainly relied on voluntary measures to reduce outdoor irrigation, a significant driver of demand within the system. For years, the agency has offered incentives to entice property owners into ripping out their grass and replacing it with desert landscaping. 

But at a recent meeting, water authority officials told the local government officials who comprise their board of directors that the incentives, on their own, might not get the agency to its goals. In particular, the water authority has met resistance from the boards of homeowners associations.

“The era where just carrots are going to get where we’re going to get is coming to the end,” said John Entsminger, the agency’s general manager. “We’re going to have to use some sticks.” 

Not only has the water authority successfully made its case to local elected officials, it also was able to persuade business interests, developers and local governments to endorse its turf removal mandates.

When the water authority first floated the proposal during a legislative hearing on Monday, the Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, the city of Henderson and the city of North Las Vegas all testified in support of the water authority’s proposed language. 

“Today is not the time to prioritize water usage for purely aesthetic reasons,” Matt Walker, a lobbyist for the homebuilders, said during the hearing on Monday. “We need to prioritize this precious resource where it’s going to move the needle for our community and our economy.”

On Monday, water authority lobbyist Andy Belanger proposed the turf removal program as an amendment to AB356, legislation proposed by the state’s Division of Water Resources. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, brought the water authority’s proposal forward as an amendment. It removed the state’s proposal and replaced the language with the water authority’s proposal.

On Friday, the committee approved the amendment with little discussion. Seven Democrats on the committee supported the language and one Republican lawmaker, Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks), backed the measure. 

The political maneuver could flip the script on the discussion around AB356, which as originally proposed by the state, drew the ire of conservationists, ranchers and farmers. They expressed concerns that the state’s original proposal, a conservation credit system, was not fully vetted with water users and could have unintended consequences, including speculative behavior.

In past legislative sessions, these same groups have often directed their ire at the water authority, which until last year, was pursuing a controversial project to import rural groundwater.

Already, some of these groups flipped to support AB356, as amended. For years, they have been pushing the water authority to double-down on aggressive conservation measures. 

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said his group supports the amended version of AB356. But he said the proposal “should not be construed as an invitation to consume more water."

"This effort is a reality check for us all. Lake Mead is headed for another round of cuts. And the likelihood of getting to elevations where Hoover Dam cannot generate power are increasingly closer,” Roerink wrote in an emailed statement. “AB356 as amended is an important policy tool that buys time.”

End of SNWA pipeline fight unifies us all

By Kyle Roerink

In the fight to stop the Las Vegas Pipeline there have been many strange alliances. 

There were farmers and ranchers working with big-city environmentalists, rural county governments mobilizing in lockstep with tribal officials, and faith groups working alongside scientists.  

But the chasm dividing the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the cohort of pipeline opponents was as expansive as the water grab itself. The original proposal from 1989 spanned across the Great Basin, demanded every unclaimed drop of water in the region, and cost astronomical sums.  

Shortly after his election to the Clark County Commission and appointment to the Southern Nevada Water Authority Board, Justin Jones and I spoke about the future prospects of the Las Vegas Pipeline. He didn’t mince words 

He wanted the pipeline dead.  

I was skeptical. 

For years, SNWA said it needed to tap rural aquifers and pipe the water hundreds of miles to Las Vegas in order to sustain life in the Mojave Desert. Rural Nevada proclaimed that –– in the nation’s driest state –– SNWA would take the water it needed to survive. 

For 31 years the pipeline fight has been a bare knuckle brawl. Litigation, state legislative battles, and congressional clashes have divided a state where we still label ourselves a la the American Civil War as the North and South. Ranchers like Dean Baker, activists like Abby Johnson, and tribal members like Delaine Spilsbury squared off against the likes of Harry Reid and Pat Mulroy.  People lost jobs, friendships ended, and the red line between project proponents and opponents was one not to be crossed.    

Lake Mead’s bathtub ring, climate change, and water sucking proposals from other states did not provide prospects of a congenial resolution. 

However, I wasn’t hopeless.  

All gubernatorial candidates in 2018 opposed the project. SNWA, led by General Manager John Entsminger, was nearing the completion of the Third Straw and incentivizing more conservation. Over the years SNWA pioneered policies like return-flow credits –– which almost double Nevada’s share of the Colorado River by efficiently recycling water –– along with turf removal and watering schedules.  SNWA had begun working to ensure the protection of groundwater resources near places like Coyote Springs. Adjustments to the Colorado River Compact in 2017 also gave Nevada a leg up and new negotiations to better govern the river were underway as part of a federal Drought Contingency Plan. 

In November 2019, oral arguments took place in Nevada’s Seventh Judicial District Court at the historic White Pine County Courthouse. A panoply of water grab opponents packed the century-old courtroom and watched GBWN counsel Simeon Herskovits square off against SNWA counsel Paul Taggart. The mise en scene in the tiny courthouse was cinematic. The outcome, however, would be all too real.  Water in the desert was on the line. 

Fast forward to March 2020. Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes issued a ruling that nullified the backbone of the project. Pipeline opponents expected an appeal to the Supreme Court. But it didn’t happen.

At the same time, a group of Las Vegas community leaders passed a strategic framework to invest more money in local conservation and Colorado River projects like desalination and other large-scale infrastructure initiatives in the Lower Basin.  COVID-19 has slowed that down a bit. But it is the future for Southern Nevada and will soon be considered by the SNWA board.  

Fittingly, on May 21, Jones asked the board to vote on a measure to the nail the coffin of the 31-year-old water grab. The board unanimously passed Jones’ motion.  

The decision is a victory for Las Vegas ratepayers – all of whom would’ve been on the hook for a $15.5 billion project – and for the plant, animal and human residents of the Great Basin.    

The news also puts an end to a regional battle that split apart two great areas of one great state. 

Uncanny allegiances were paramount in stopping this project. It’s fitting that the last opponent of the water grab was the one we never expected.

Kyle Roerink is Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network.

Water authority board votes to withdraw remaining water right applications, permits for pipeline project

The Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted Thursday to withdraw its remaining permits and applications associated with its proposal to pump groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas -- a project criticized by environmentalists, ranchers, tribes and rural counties. 

The unanimous decision by the board, which is composed of local elected officials, marks an end to the water authority’s multi-decade effort to get approval for the controversial water project. 

In April, the water authority signaled its intention to shelve the project by not appealing an unfavorable District Court ruling that denied the water authority a sizable portion of its water rights. Still, the water authority had remaining applications, entitlements and agreements that would have made it possible to develop a reconfigured project in the future. 

The board’s action Thursday morning, which came at the recommendation of General Manager John Entsminger and water authority staff, took that possibility off the table. 

“We should recommend to the board moving the groundwater project into indefinite deferred status when we redo our resource plan,” Entsminger told the board before its vote. 

In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District set off a firestorm in rural Nevada when it filed more than 100 applications to appropriate groundwater across the state. Those applications were eventually put in the name of the water authority. The plan: to build a pipeline that would pump the groundwater to the fast-growing urban reliant on a drought-stricken Colorado River. 

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who sits on the water authority board and made a  motion to approve the recommendation, said that since the project was proposed, “it has become clear that the project does not make sense either environmentally or economically.”

Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition that has opposed the project in court, at the Legislature and in the media, said the “decision is the product of immense sacrifice on behalf of rural communities, tribes, environmentalists and others – all of whom were told time and again that this day would never come.”

In recent years, the agency continued to push back its timeline for needing that water.

The Las Vegas metropolitan area sources about 90 percent of its drinking water from the Colorado River. Since the pipeline was being seriously weighted as an option, the water authority has decreased the amount of Colorado River water it uses each year, through conservation and indoor water recycling. It has also increased its water security by investing heavily in infrastructure allowing the agency to tap into water under a worst-case scenario.

This, in addition to collaboration with other Colorado River users, allowed agency staff to recommend putting the project in “indefinite deferred status,” Entsminger said. 

According to the agenda item, the authority continues looking for ways to bolster its water supply portfolio. But to do so, it’s suggesting that it’s looking to other Colorado River users. 

“In addition to pressing forward with the conservation programs discussed above, the authority remains actively engaged in discussions with [Colorado River] basin state colleagues to add long term water resources to its portfolio,” Entsminger wrote in the agenda item. “Such resources may include, without limitation, desalination and wastewater recycling where appropriate, and will likely require that additional flexibilities be added to the Law of the River.”

The Law of the River refers to the set of compacts, congressional acts, guidelines, litigation and rules that govern who the Colorado River operates. Those rules could go through a new update in the coming years as states in the watershed re-consider guidelines for operating reservoirs. 

“Southern Nevada’s progressive water resource management strategies and comprehensive conservation programs provide more cost-effective options to enhance our long-term water resource portfolio,” Entsminger said in a statement released after the meeting.

Pat Mulroy, who led the water district and later the water authority from 1989 to 2014, said that the completion of infrastructure at Lake Mead offered Southern Nevada more security for its Colorado River supply. She said she trusted the board's judgement that it could remove the project from its resource plan.

"The bottom line is this was all about securing our water supply for Southern Nevada," she said. "Period. If that could be done another way I'm all for it."

The board’s action directs water authority staff to withdraw pending groundwater applications related to the project. In addition to the water rights litigated in the District Court decision, the water authority had pending applications before the state’s top water regulator, in other basins. Those include Snake Valley, an aquifer shared with Utah, Railroad Valley and Indian Springs.

It also committed the water authority to reconveying a litigated right-of-way to the Bureau of Land Management. The actions also allow staff to withdraw from agreements with federal agencies regarding the project and write-off about $330 million accrued for the project.

Once the water authority withdraws its applications for water rights with state regulators, other individuals or entities could file applications to appropriate the water. That could be a mixed blessing for opponents of the project. Although it would allow local residents to appropriate water that had been tied up for years, it could enable others to propose large-scale projects.

In addition, the water authority will continue to own ranches associated with the project. 

“This is truly historic,” Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an opponent of the project, said in a statement. “People who love rural Nevada and its precious wildlife can breathe a sigh of relief now that this destructive pipeline plan is dead.”

Live blog: Clark County School District identifies 15 food pick-up locations open Monday; some immigration hearings postponed

Last updated Sunday, March 15, 2020, at 9:47 p.m.

With the number of coronavirus cases in the Silver State on the rise, The Nevada Independent will be keeping you up to date on the latest here, both through regular live blog updates and updates to our infographic tracking cases around Nevada. The most recent updates will be posted at the top.

Resources:

Some immigration hearings postponed after immigrant defense lawyers, ICE employees issue joint complaint

Although they’re usually on opposing sides, ICE employees and lawyers that defend clients against deportation have issued a joint open letter calling for closure of the nation’s immigration courts for two to four weeks — a request that was partially honored late Sunday when the government announced the postponement of certain hearings.

The open letter, issued Sunday by ICE employee union the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Association of Immigration Judges, argued that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment” by not closing the courts. The coalition cited the opinion of Harvard public health expert Dr. Ashish Jha.

“He estimates that in two to four weeks sufficient testing will have been completed so that epidemiological experts will be able to provide specific, data-based directions for organizations like our courts,” the letter said. “He provided his unequivocal opinion that to continue to hold any hearings at any Immigration Court at this time presents a high public health risk.”

Late Sunday, the DOJ tweeted that all non-detained immigrants’ master calendar hearings starting Monday and continuing through April 10 were postponed, while other hearings would proceed on schedule.

Immigration courts are run by the DOJ and operate in 68 locations, including in Las Vegas. 

The authors said they applauded the DOJ’s decision Friday to close the Seattle immigration court and limit the size of hearings at 10 immigration courts in six cities, but said there’s no rationale for why processes had not been modified in other locations. They said they would support “telework” and other workarounds to avoid in-person appearances.

— Michelle Rindels, Sunday, March 15, 9:30 p.m.

Clark County School District identifies 15 food pick-up locations that will be in operation Monday

The Clark County School District has announced 15 school locations where parents can pick up breakfast and lunch for their children starting Monday.

The food distribution pods will be open from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. The school-age child must be present for food to be distributed, per federal regulations, district officials said. Parents also can pick up academic resources at the sites. 

“Additionally, CCSD will be working with our government and community partners to set up food distribution options to ensure our students have access to additional food. Information on these options will be shared with parents as soon as it is available,” district officials said in a statement.

The district also is working with rural communities to set up food distribution.

Here are the food distribution locations:

  • Basic High School: 400 Palo Verde Dr., Henderson, NV 89015
  • Canyon Springs High School: 350 E Alexander Rd., North Las Vegas, NV 89032
  • Centennial High School: 10200 Centennial Pkwy., Las Vegas, NV 89149
  • Chaparral High School: 3820 Annie Oakley Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89121
  • Cheyenne High School: 3200 W Alexander Rd., North Las Vegas, NV 89032
  • Cimarron-Memorial High School: 2301 N Tenaya Way, Las Vegas, NV 89128
  • Clark High School: 4291 W Pennwood Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89102
  • Desert Pines High School: 3800 E Harris Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89110
  • Las Vegas High School: 6500 E Sahara Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89142
  • Mojave High School: 5302 Goldfield St., North Las Vegas, NV 89031
  • Shadow Ridge High School: 5050 Brent Ln., Las Vegas, NV 89131
  • Sierra Vista HIgh School: 8100 W Robindale Rd., Las Vegas, NV 89113
  • Silverado High School: 1650 W Silver Hawk Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89123
  • Spring Valley High School: 3750 S Buffalo Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89147
  • Veterans Career and Technical Academy: 2531 Vegas Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89106

— Jackie Valley

Southern Nevada municipalities declare states of emergency; more city programming canceled

Leaders of Clark County and the major cities within its boundaries have declared states of emergency, which they say will help offer them the flexibility needed to address the impact of coronavirus.

The declarations were made Sunday by the county and the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, Mesquite and Boulder City. Officials said it would help stabilize conditions related to the pandemic, as well as its effects on emergency rooms, government agencies, businesses, residents and visitors.

“The current situation involving the coronavirus requires some administrative leniency in the enforcement of ordinances, rules, regulations, purchasing and other government functions,” officials said in a statement Sunday evening, adding that they “may need flexibility in staffing levels and assignments normally addressed in collective bargaining agreements and merit personnel systems.”

The declaration comes after Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a statewide state of emergency on Thursday, and after Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve made a similar declaration on Friday.

The City of Sparks announced late Sunday that it was declaring a state of emergency because “this makes it easier to respond financially by accessing resources that wouldn’t otherwise be available.”

Aside from the declarations, more municipalities announced closures on Sunday.

The City of North Las Vegas announced it would suspend all recreational sports leagues and classes, and close its recreation centers and libraries effective Monday, March 16.

The City of Reno announced Sunday that it was closing all recreation facilities through April 5 and canceling all programming, classes and rentals within them, including Spring Break Vacation Station Camps

The City of Sparks announced cancellations of spring break and before and after school programming, special events and tournaments through April 30, as well as closures of community centers.

Clark County announced that it would be canceling county commission meetings for the rest of the month.

Michelle Rindels, Sunday, March 15, 8:48 p.m.

Source: Nevada passengers aboard Grand Princess are back in state, tested negative for COVID-19

Nevada passengers who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship that experienced an outbreak of the novel coronavirus have returned to Nevada and a 14-day isolation period, after all of them tested negative, according to a state official with knowledge of the situation.

The development comes a week after the state was notified about the positive tests aboard the ship, which had 50 Nevadans aboard and had been floating in the San Francisco Bay. Passengers have been subject to shifting plans that have at times called for quarantining them on out-of-state military bases.

On Tuesday, Nevada health officials outlined terms they had agreed to to repatriate the Nevadans, who have not been showing symptoms of COVID-19. Those conditions included flying the residents home without letting them pass through buildings of a commercial airport, and securing isolated transportation to their homes in vehicles that would then be sanitized.

Returning passengers will be required to isolate themselves for two weeks.

Two passengers on a previous cruise the boat took died in California after contracting coronavirus, and 21 people on the most recent cruise tested positive — including 19 crew members and two passengers. 

— Michelle Rindels, Sunday, March 15, 8 p.m.

Washoe County announces five more COVID-19 cases, bringing statewide total to 26

Five more people in Washoe County have received positive tests for COVID-19, health officials announced Sunday afternoon. That brings the statewide count to 26.

Three of the new cases are close contacts of people previously diagnosed with the novel coronavirus in Washoe County, health authorities said. The two other cases involve people who recently traveled.

All five people are in stable condition and self-isolating at home, according to the Washoe County Health District. They are:

  • A woman in her 40s who traveled to Southern California
  • A woman in her 30s who traveled to the Bay Area
  • A man in his 20s who was a close contact of someone previously diagnosed in Washoe County
  • A man in his 30s who was a close contact of someone previously diagnosed in Washoe County
  • A woman in her 30s who was a close contact of someone previously diagnosed in Washoe County

The additional cases come a day after Washoe County health authorities announced the first case linked to community transmission.

The Washoe County Health District also reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ceased confirming tests, meaning all presumptive positive cases are “officially confirmed,” health authorities said. Washoe County has nine confirmed cases.

— Jackie Valley

Washoe County closes libraries to halt coronavirus spread

Washoe County is immediately closing all libraries in the county to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, library system director Jeff Scott announced on Twitter on Sunday.

The library system on Friday announced it would suspend “high-contact” programs and events until at least April. It’s the first closure of any library system in the state in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

The Clark County library system is for the time being remaining open at normal hours, but has suspended all library events and programs through June 30 and increased frequency of cleaning and disinfecting.

— Riley Snyder, 3/15/20 at 1:10 p.m.

Clark County teachers union joins calls to shut Southern Nevada schools

The Clark County Education Association joined calls on Sunday to close Clark County public schools in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement released Sunday, the union called on Gov. Steve Sisolak to assist the Clark County School District in “carrying out the responsible measures to suspend school operations as soon as possible.” The union called the ongoing coronavirus crisis “not simply a school district issue, but a nationwide issue.”

“Governor Sisolak should work with Superintendent [Jesus] Jara to ensure that CCSD has the needed funds, and logistical structure it needs to shut down schools to assist in taking care of those students who need food, daycare, and other assistance the school system normally provides,” the union said.

The union additionally called on Sisolak to provide the school district the needed funding to pay all employees while schools are closed, as well as funding to pay teachers for any future makeup days for lost instruction.

Union leaders also urged teachers to take charge of their own health and seek medical attention, self-quarantine and not report to work if they are showing any symptoms of the novel coronavirus, which include cough, fever and shortness of breath.

On Saturday, the National Education Association of Southern Nevada sent Jara a letter calling schools “literal living petri dishes.” An online petition with tens of thousands of signatures has also been circulating asking the district to close schools.

— Megan Messerly, 3/15/20 at 12:24 p.m.

Culinary union extends health insurance benefits for laid off workers

The Culinary Workers Local 226 union says that it is temporarily extending health insurance for any members who are laid off or have their hours reduced due to the ongoing economic slowdown at many major Las Vegas hotels and casinos.

The union, which said in an announcement Saturday that it was still negotiating for a package of worker benefits including paid sick leave amid coronavirus outbreak fears, said it would extend health insurance coverage for laid off or reduced-hour union members for several months. A flyer published by the union said anyone who did not work enough hours in March and April would have benefits continued until at least July and August.

The union’s health insurance plan will also cover any medically necessary testing for the novel coronavirus, though the Culinary Health Center does not currently have the ability to test for the virus.

“We are working with the employers to identify any job opportunities and make sure they are made available to laid-off workers, including available work in other classifications if needed and if (the) worker is qualified,” it said in a release on Saturday.

— Riley Snyder, 3/14/20 at 6:59 p.m.

Clark County School District to remain open at least through Monday

The Clark County School District will remain open Monday, according to a message Superintendent Jesus Jara sent to parents Saturday afternoon.

“At this time, we are opening CCSD schools as normally scheduled this coming Monday, March 16,” he wrote. “However, I have not ruled out a short-term closure and will continue working with the Board of School Trustees, and our state and local partners, especially our health experts, to evaluate next steps.”

The superintendent also indicated in his message that he met with a “coalition of partners” Saturday morning to discuss the situation.

The school district — which is the fifth-largest in the nation — has been under fire in recent days for remaining open despite the spread of the novel coronavirus. Entire states and other large school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, already have announced short-term school closures. (Education Week has been mapping closures across the country here.)

An online petition asking the Clark County School District to close has more than 43,300 signatures, and employee groups have joined the calls for closure.

The National Education Association of Southern Nevada sent Jara a letter Saturday calling schools “literal living petri dishes” with conditions such as crowded classrooms and buses that will make it impossible to stop a pandemic.

“Besides the potential spread among otherwise healthy individuals of COVID-19, you have hundreds (or possibly thousands) of immune compromised students and educators who will be at even higher risk by schools remaining open,” the letter states. “This particular group will have to make hard choices as the risk becomes greater. We anticipate you will see much higher absence rates in both students and employees the longer we stay open.”

Meanwhile, the Washoe County School District will be starting its planned two-week spring break on Monday. The Clark County School District’s spring break is scheduled for the week of April 6-10.

— Jackie Valley

Washoe County health officials announce fourth presumptive positive case of novel coronavirus, bringing statewide total to 21

Washoe County health officials announced on Saturday a fourth presumptive positive case of the novel coronavirus that they are linking to community transmission. 

The patient is a man in his 20s who had no travel history outside of Washoe County, according to a news release from  the Washoe County Health District. He is stable and self-isolating at home.

Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick said the community transmission of COVID-19 doesn’t come as a surprise, but it does underscore the need for precautionary measures and social distancing during this time. He said it also means there are other cases within the community that haven’t been identified yet.

“We’ve stepped over a threshold of where we are with what’s happening with COVID-19,” he said during a news briefing Saturday afternoon. “This is our signal that we really need to redouble our efforts and heighten our attention and awareness to the precautionary measures that we’ve been messaging to the community for weeks.”

Health authorities have begun the investigation and process of identifying the patient’s close-risk contacts to prevent further community spread, officials said. 

This brings the statewide total of presumptive positive cases to 21. Clark County has reported 16 cases, and Carson City has reported one.

Testing is only being conducted for people determined to be the most at risk for COVID-19, said Dick, who believes Washoe County has enough testing kits for the time being. He noted that private companies are working to develop rapid testing systems — similar to what’s available for influenza — that could be deployed across the health sector, but even then, he said widespread testing probably isn’t necessary.

“If you aren’t symptomatic and don’t have a reason to believe that you’re exposed to COVID-19, there’s no sense in having that test,” he said. “I don’t think we should be promoting for everybody to be seeking an opportunity for the testing.”

As for when the Grand Princess cruise passengers will make their return to Nevada, that remains up in the air.

“They won’t be coming today,” Dick said. “I hope they will return tomorrow, but as the governor has stated, this is the U.S. Health and Human Services that is in charge of these passengers and getting them back to Nevada. The governor is frustrated, and I know he is working diligently to get their return to the state.”

Washoe County’s top health official also urged community members to let common sense prevail when it comes to shopping. Dick has seen grocery carts overflowing with canned goods or other supplies, indicating consumer hoarding.

“We think it’s important that everybody be able to have their provisions and not have everything wiped out,” he said.

— Jackie Valley

Sisolak assembles medical advisory team to guide state response to coronavirus

Gov. Steve Sisolak has announced the creation of a medical advisory team that will provide guidance on how the state can mitigate and contain the novel coronavirus.

The team will be led by Dr. Ihsan Azzam, the state’s chief medical officer. The following four medical experts will make up the rest of the team:

  • Dr. Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNR
  • Dr. Brian Labus, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at UNLV
  • Dr. Paul Sierzenski, chief medical officer in the Acute Care Division at the Renown Health System
  • Dr. Shadaba Asad, director of infectious disease at University Medical Center

“Dr. Azzam and this medical advisory team represent some of the brightest and most well-respected medical professionals in the State,” Sisolak said in a statement. “In this rapidly developing situation, it is critical that we turn to those with expertise in infection control and public health to guide our decision-making, and I have full confidence that we’ve assembled the right team for the job.”

The governor noted this move is part of issuing a declaration of emergency earlier this week and creating a state emergency operations center.

— Jackie Valley

Eight new presumptive positive cases of novel coronavirus in Clark County, one in Washoe County brings statewide total to 20

The Southern Nevada Health District on Friday reported eight new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number in Clark County to 16 and the statewide total to 20.

Health officials also released details on three new cases that were previously announced Thursday.

One of the new cases, a man in his 60s, is hospitalized and in serious condition, while a woman in her 40s is hospitalized in a good condition and a woman in her 50s is hospitalized in stable condition. Four other new cases — a man in his 60s, a man in his 40s, a man in his 20s and a man in his 30s — are isolating at home.

There were no additional details immediately available on the remaining two cases, both men, one in his 50s and another in his 30s.

Of the previous five patients, two who were hospitalized — a man in his 50s and a woman in her 70s — remain in serious condition. The third hospitalized patient, a New York woman in her 40s, is in stable condition. The two others are still isolating at home.

"Well we have seen of course a limited community spread, person to person spread, so hence, a lot of the recommendations we're making about large gatherings and social distancing,” Michael Johnson, director of the Southern Nevada Health District’s Community Health Division, told reporters Friday afternoon.

The health district has done 223 tests so far and has the resources to do about 1,000 more. While authorities said they are not backed up, they are “at capacity” — able to perform about 60 tests a day — and seeking more resources.

“The more testing we do the more cases we pick up, so as testing has increased, there may be a little bit of that,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that two commercial labs, Quest and LabCorp, have begun testing but was unable to immediately provide the number of tests those two labs have carried out. Commercial labs are required to report results to local health authorities.

The health district also put out new guidance for “high-risk populations,” advising them to limit their interactions, and to workplaces and businesses to consider limiting travel and decreasing exposures. Authorities are advising postponement for large community gatherings and “non-essential events.”

Authorities say they are also considering making a hotline that is currently open during business hours open 24 hours a day. 

Health officials noted they have made certain recommendations to schools including cutting salad bars and extracurricular activities, but said recommending school closures could be a possibility down the road.

“As these cases continue to increase and should we see ones in the schools, it’s very likely that that may be a recommendation that we make.”

Additionally on Friday, the Washoe County Health District announced it had received a third presumptive positive case of the virus. The new case involves a female in her 20s who recently traveled to Germany and France, and was described as "stable" and is self-isolating at home.

MGM Resorts International sent a letter to employees Friday alerting them that “several of our employees have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus,” although it does not say where those employees live or work. 

The letter went on to announce that about 150 food and beverage outlets will close with more to come on a “rolling basis.” Spa and salon operations also will be suspended starting Monday.

“Some areas of our business operations have already begun layoffs in areas most immediately impacted by the slowdown in demand,” the letter says. “These decisions are never made lightly, and we deeply regret the hardship it will place on these individuals and their families.”

— Shannon Miller, Michelle Rindels, Megan Messerly, Jackie Valley

Reno declares state of emergency over COVID-19

Mayor Hillary Schieve announced a state of emergency for the city of Reno on Friday afternoon in preparation for the spread of COVID-19.

"The city of Reno [declared the state of emergency] so that we have every single tool available to us," Schieve said, explaining that the decision is proactive rather than reactive, and follows in the footsteps of other cities such as New York City and Miami.

The decision arrived the same day President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency, and one day after Gov. Steve Sisolak proclaimed a state of emergency for Nevada.

As part of the declaration, the city will now have the ability to establish a curfew, enact a ban on large gatherings, redirect funds for emergency use and commit to mutual aid agreements, among other actions.

City leaders are still determining what measures they will take as part of the declaration. However, in addition to the suspensions of special events permits for events scheduled on public property through the end of April, the city is postponing city advisory boards and non-essential meetings and recommending people follow CDC guidelines on social distancing.

Schieve said the city has not yet enacted a ban on large gatherings, but might do so in the coming weeks. She added the city is relying on businesses, organizations, and individuals to make judgment calls.

One point of concern for Schieve was the coronavirus’ effect on Reno's local economy, which relies heavily on the tourism and gaming industries. 

"I hope we don't see any layoffs, but I wouldn't be surprised," the mayor said, noting that local businesses often operate on narrow margins and losing customers and foot traffic as a result of the virus could be devasting.

She said she and other city officials plan to develop strategies to aid businesses and residents who are threatened by the virus and are also depending on federal and state legislation to address the effects of the pandemic.

Officials also said they are working to keep Reno's homeless populations informed on developments and providing them with sanitary products.

Councilman Devon Reese said he plans to create an initiative for collecting food and other essentials for populations most at risk from the virus, including the elderly and homeless.

"I want to make sure that the key takeaway is that our city is engaged, we're active, we will be, under the terms of the emergency declaration, able to access greater tools than prior," he said.

City officials will be submitting the declaration to the state, and it will remain in effect until the emergency is declared over.

— Tabitha Mueller

Gas, water, internet utilities suspend disconnections due to non-payment

Southwest Gas, internet companies and the water authorities serving Las Vegas and Reno announced Friday that they would not disconnect utility service due to non-payment in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The utilities, necessary for residents to work from home or self-isolate, emphasized that they intend to work with customers affected financially by the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier on Friday, NV Energy announced that it would not cut-off power to its customers.

Southwest Gas, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority are instituting similar policies. In statements Friday afternoon, all three utilities said that they would temporarily pause disconnections of natural gas or water for customers for non-payment. They also offer payment plans for customers taking a financial hit.

“With the uncertainty surrounding the current Coronavirus pandemic, we at Truckee Meadows Water Authority want to ensure that all of our customers are able follow the recommended hygienic protocols set forth by the medical experts,” Michele Sullivan, the chief financial officer of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, said in a statement. 

Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai has asked internet service providers to pledge that they would not terminate service to residents or small businesses within the next 60 days. The pledge also asks companies to waive late fees and open their Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public. As of Friday afternoon, most companies, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter and Cox Communications, had signed onto the pledge.

— Daniel Rothberg

Nonprofit's domestic-violence shelter and services 'fully operational' in Las Vegas

SafeNest, a nonprofit that provides services and shelter to victims of domestic violence, announced Friday that it remains open to assist people but is putting some emergency protocols into place.

“SafeNest is committed to providing vital crisis services to our clients, shelter residents and anyone who may be experiencing abuse during this time of uncertainty,” officials said in a statement. “Our shelter and 24/7 crisis hotline will remain fully operational as our community struggles with increased financial, emotional and economic instability.”

Social distancing, sanitation and quarantine procedures are among the emergency protocols the nonprofit is implementing at all SafeNest facilities, officials said, as it strives to keep residents, clients and staff safe.

Further updates and information will be posted on SafeNest’s website and social media pages. Anyone who needs help should call or text 702-646-4981.

— Jackie Valley

NV Energy temporarily waives fees, suspends disconnections for affected customers

NV Energy will temporarily suspend disconnections for non-payment and waive fees for customers affected financially by the novel coronavirus, the utility said in a statement Friday. 

“We are seeing the effects the coronavirus is having on our community and our customers, and we want to provide our customers with some peace of mind during this challenging time,” said Doug Cannon, NV Energy president and CEO said in the statement. “As more of our customers choose to self-isolate or work from home, reliable, uninterrupted power is essential to their health, well-being and comfort.” 

The state's largest utility said it is coordinating with Gov. Steve Sisolak's office. On Thursday, Sisolak declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

Several utilities across the country have looked at temporarily suspending disconnections during a public health emergency that has forced shutdowns and employees to work from home. 

According to the statement, NV Energy also plans to waive late-payment fees and offer payment plans for customers who are hit financially by the coronavirus. 

“We are here to support our customers, and we will continue to deliver reliable electric service during this period of uncertainty – every customer can be certain of that,” Cannon said. “The safety of our customers and our employees is our highest priority.”

— Daniel Rothberg

Washoe County health authorities stress risk reduction, say cruise passengers likely headed home today

Several dozen Nevadans who sailed on the Grand Princess cruise ship are expected to return to Nevada on Friday, Washoe County Health District officials said.

The 49 Nevadans, who are currently staying at an inn at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California, are expected to be flown home and transported securely back to their residences to complete a 14-day quarantine period. Though all remain asymptomatic, the group will be tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to the state.

“The latest word that we have heard is that is expected to occur later today,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said at a news conference on Friday. “We will be monitoring them over that 14-day period to take appropriate action if they do develop any symptoms.”

Washoe County health officials generally stressed risk reduction during the news conference, noting that, as of Friday morning, the region still only has two coronavirus cases — one presumptive positive and another confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both of those patients are self-isolating at home and not in need of hospitalization at this time, Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick said.

Non-essential public meetings have been suspended in Washoe County, and officials are strongly encouraging the cancellation of any large gatherings.

“This is all in an effort to promote social distancing so that we have people that are not gathering together in conditions that would facilitate the spread of the disease,” Dick said.

The Washoe County School District begins its planned two-week spring break on Monday, which health authorities described as fortunate timing despite no official recommendation to shut down schools. Dick said he’s in daily contact with school district officials.

“We will be talking with them about what is the appropriate course of action moving forward,” he said. “I’m thankful we have the break coming up right now. That will give us a little bit more time of talking this through and figuring out what the best course of action will be.”

When asked at what point the health district would consider closing casinos, given that they draw travelers from other areas, Dick said “I don’t have a bright line that we’ve drawn.” He said the health district would continue evaluating the situation, and noted that the agency’s governing board had “broad authorities” to take action.

“The District Board of Health has broad authorities for public health in Washoe County that could include closing the casinos. But we are not near any point in making that decision right now,” he said. 

Health authorities also called on the public’s help minimizing unnecessary 911 calls, noting they have seen a recent increase in emergency calls.

“Calling 911 at this time should only be for life-threatening emergencies — I repeat — only for life-threatening emergencies,” Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey said. “Despite the fears, common sense must prevail at this time.”

Meanwhile, older residents — defined as anyone age 60 or older — should take extra precautions given their increased risk, Dick said. He suggested they visit stores during non-peak hours and consider stocking up on several weeks’ worth of groceries to avoid public exposure.

But if cabin fever is setting in, the health officer gave this piece of advice: “If they’re out for a walk and they’re not in close contact with other people, that should be a safe thing for them to be doing.”

— Megan Messerly, Jackie Valley, Daniel Rothberg, Tabitha Mueller

Southern Nevada Water Authority says it has "robust emergency response" plans

In a newsletter Thursday from Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, the agency said it was coordinating with state and local officials to prepare for the novel coronavirus.

"As part of our agency’s readiness plans, provisions are in place to ensure appropriate water treatment supplies and resources are available to sustain water delivery for an extended period of time, even if supply chains are temporarily disrupted," the newsletter said.

The water authority also posted a fact-sheet on its website addressing frequently asked questions. It assures residents that the water authority can continue delivering water.

"Our community’s drinking water supplies meet or surpass federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards,” the fact sheet says. "Even under extreme circumstances, provisions are in place to make water available from groundwater wells and/or through other operational strategies."

The fact sheet also noted that the water authority already "maintains robust emergency response and readiness plans" to adjust to disruptive events, such as natural disasters.

The water authority also reiterated what public health officials have said about the coronavirus – that "there is no indication that transmission can occur via drinking water supplies."

— Daniel Rothberg

UNLV prepares for remote instruction after spring break

UNLV announced Thursday evening that the university will “out of an abundance of caution” because of the novel coronavirus transition to remote instruction beginning the week of March 23, after the school’s scheduled spring break.

The university made the announcement on Twitter, saying that all “normal university operations” will continue and students currently living in residence halls will be allowed to remain there. 

“The transition to remote instruction can result in unexpected impacts and complications for every member of our university community, and we need to be patient, flexible, and support each other during this challenging time,” the university wrote on Twitter.

The University of Nevada, Reno announced on Thursday that it would also begin online-only instruction starting March 23, after spring break, and extending indefinitely. Students, faculty and staff will have access to Zoom Pro, a videoconferencing platform.

The school also announced any public or special events with a planned attendance of 150 or more would be canceled or postponed starting March 13 and continuing until further notice. Students were directed not to return to campus after spring break and those who live in dorms and can't stay home after break were directed to immediately contact university housing staff.

— Riley Snyder & Michelle Rindels

First coronavirus case outside of Las Vegas, Reno confirmed in Carson City, bringing statewide total to 11

A Carson City woman in her 70s is the first patient to test presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus outside of Reno and Las Vegas, Carson City health officials announced Thursday afternoon.

Nikki Aaker, director of the Carson City Health and Human Services department, said the woman contracted the virus while traveling via airline from San Jose to Reno — a trip from which she returned on March 2. The patient was not among the 49 Nevada residents who were quarantined aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship earlier this week.

The patient contacted her health care provider after feeling flu-like symptoms and is isolated at home, as is her husband. Aaker said the woman is “feeling better” today and did everything right in terms of isolating at home and reaching out to authorities after feeling ill.

“She has been very diligent in doing her preventive measures, so yes, she has done everything right,” Aaker said.

Additional details on the airline the patient traveled aboard were unavailable; health officials said they were still actively investigating the case. They did say she did not have symptoms while flying.

Carson City officials said that there remains a “considerably low” risk to the community and that there are no current plans to close schools in the area or limit the size of events. Aaker recommended that anyone feeling flu-like symptoms of what could be the novel coronavirus call a health agency hotline (775-283-4789).

Asked whether private labs are ready to perform coronavirus testing, health authorities said that they have not been able to do so yet, but will in the future. Health officials also said they have policies in place to contact with patients who are self-isolating and will address any needs that arise among them, such as food or medicine deliveries.

Carson City Health and Human Services is the public health authority for Carson City, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties.

— Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder

Clark County School District suspends athletics, extracurricular activities

The Clark County School District has suspended all extracurricular activities and athletics until further notice, marking the latest move to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The decision covers “all school, district and non-district sponsored athletics, extra-curricular activities, assemblies, practices, and events,” according to a district memo sent out Thursday afternoon. Other normally scheduled activities such as graduation ceremonies will be evaluated as the situation unfolds, officials noted.

The suspension, however, does not include programs providing after-school care such as Safekey, After-School All-Stars, Communities in Schools. 

The district also announced it’s removing salad bars, banning out-of-district consultants from providing in-person services and increasing cleaning of all surfaces. In addition, the district has asked employees to “avoid unnecessary travel to other schools and district buildings” during this time, according to the memo.

Officials said they’re continuing to work with the governor, local governments, the health district and other agencies to provide a “cohesive community response” that protects students and staff.

“It is important to remember that, at this time, most Nevada residents are at low risk of contracting coronavirus,” he memo states.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara already had canceled all out-of-state travel for students and restricted such travel for employees. Those restrictions remain.

The Clark County School Board of Trustees meeting will continue as planned Thursday evening, although only essential personnel will attend.

— Jackie Valley

Regional Justice Center reports one mistrial after exposure concern, asks jurors older than 70 to request excusal

A spokesperson for the Regional Justice Court in Las Vegas said that it is rescheduling jury service for residents who are ill and asking prospective jurors older than 70 who are called for service to use their option to recuse themselves. In an email responding to questions from The Nevada Independent, Mary Ann Price said that the court has "not had a significant number of jurors expressing concerns yet." She added that the court is evaluating whether it needs to "temporarily suspend jury trials."

Price said the court has not experienced "significant delays" tied to the novel coronavirus, but noted a mistrial in one case after a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter, later self-quarantined for the virus at home, attended a trial. The reporter attended the trial before learning that an attendee at a conference she had traveled to in New Orleans later tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Before the reporter was aware that she may have been exposed, she briefly attended a trial at the RJC," Price said. "One week after potential exposure, the reporter still has no symptoms and is self-quarantined at home. Jurors who were part of that trial were notified and excused. In an abundance of caution, District Court and Clark County Real Property Management worked to provide extra disinfecting of our security bins, elevators and all hard surfaces in the courtroom in question."

The court is also coordinating with the Clark County Detention Center, which "will not transport anyone who is ill or meets other criteria for isolation," Price said. The detention center has not identified any coronavirus cases, and inmates are still making in-person appearances at trials.

In general, the court expects an increase in requests for continuances or video appearances.

— Daniel Rothberg

Nevada Supreme Court to allow video conferencing during oral arguments

Citing concerns about exposure to the novel coronavirus, the Nevada Supreme Court announced it will allow lawyers appearing before the court to do so by videoconferencing.

The court made the announcement on Thursday, and said it would permit attorneys speaking in oral arguments before the court through videoconferencing, so long as they make a written request at least three days in advance of oral arguments and have “internet capabilities compatible with those of the court.”

The court’s next oral arguments are scheduled for next Friday, in a case involving the state’s tax department and a legal marijuana retailer.

The move follows steps taken in other courts federally and locally to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. The Eighth Judicial District Court in Las Vegas is advising citizens summoned to appear for jury duty to call or notify the court if they’re suffering from flu-like symptoms, and District Court Chief Judge Linda Bell said in a blog post last week that the court is prepared “to address different scenarios should the coronavirus become an issue for our community.”

On the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Thursday that it is closed to public visitors over concerns with the virus, and courts in Washington and Maryland have suspended proceedings or banned some people from entering court buildings.

— Riley Snyder

Three additional presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Clark County brings statewide total to 10

Three more people in Clark County have tested presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus, bringing the total cases in Southern Nevada to eight and the statewide total to 10, Southern Nevada Health District officials announced Thursday morning.

Health district officials did not immediately provide additional information about the three new cases, including the status of the patients, whether they are hospitalized or at home in isolation or how they may have acquired the virus. They added that investigations into the three cases are in the “preliminary” phase and that they will provide additional information as it becomes available.

The health district has said it will provide an update to the media Thursday afternoon and schedule a media availability if new information can be released.

— Megan Messerly

President cancels trip to Nevada as precaution amid coronavirus outbreak

President Donald Trump has cancelled plans to travel to Nevada and Colorado on Thursday “out of an abundance of caution from the Coronavirus outbreak," according to a pool report citing White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham.

Trump was expected to arrive in Las Vegas on Thursday and appear at what the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported was a sold-out campaign fundraiser at the home of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He had plans for a Colorado fundraiser with Republican Sen. Cory Gardner on Friday.

The president had planned to headline the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Annual Leadership Meeting at The Venetian casino on the Las Vegas Strip, with a speech scheduled on Saturday. Shortly after Trump's announcement, organizers of the conference said they "regretfully decided to postpone" the event until "the current health crisis allows."

— Michelle Rindels

In preparation for influx of coronavirus patients, Sunrise Hospital sets up outdoor tents

Sunrise Hospital and its affiliated children’s hospital have set up outdoor tents in anticipation of a possible influx of patients who present with symptoms of the novel coronavirus, hospital officials said Wednesday.

The tents, which have been set up outside the adult emergency department and in the ambulance bay for the children’s emergency department, will allow hospital staff to screen and triage patients in a well-ventilated space that reduces the risk of spreading any illnesses, whether COVID-19 or the seasonal flu, Sunrise Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeffrey Murawsky said in a statement. The tents will also provide extra space that will allow staff to keep patients about six feet apart, the distance that scientists think the coronavirus can travel between people.

A medical screening tent seen outside of Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

“As we think about both the coronavirus and, this particular year, a very busy flu season, Sunrise Hospital and Sunrise Children’s Hospital need to be prepared for a surge of patients which is where we see a lot of people with similar symptoms,” Murawsky said.

The tents are not currently in use, Murawsky said.

He added that the preparations are in accordance with CDC guidelines, which recommend making specific preparations for a surge of cases and setting up spaces to triage patients near emergency departments, and are similar to those undertaken during the H1N1 flu outbreak.

“There’s more flu in the community right now than COVID and if a surge of flu-like illness happens, this allows us to appropriately evaluate patients,” Murawsky said.

He urged people to wash their hands and stay home when they have a fever.

Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno also announced on Wednesday that it was unveiling a tent in the parking lot outside of its emergency room to screen patients with respiratory symptoms. The hospital noted "there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases at Renown at this time. This deployable medical structure is simply a precautionary measure."

— Megan Messerly & Michelle Rindels

Three new coronavirus cases in Clark County brings regional total to five, statewide to seven

Three more people in Clark County have tested presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of positive Southern Nevada tests to five and the statewide total to seven, Southern Nevada Health District officials announced Wednesday afternoon.

One of them is a New York woman in her 40s who arrived in Las Vegas to attend the Women of Power Summit at the Mirage resort in Las Vegas on Thursday, before falling ill and being hospitalized on Sunday. Health district officials said the woman remains isolated and in stable condition and noted that they are working with the casino and conference organizers to inform attendees and identify the woman’s close contacts.

Close contacts are defined as people who were within six feet of a person confirmed to have COVID-19 for a prolonged period of time. Those people were contacted by the health authority and directed to self-quarantine, while all of the 1,000 or so registered attendees were notified in a general email about the possible exposure but not directed to quarantine themselves, according to Alfred Edmond Jr., senior vice president and editor at large of Black Enterprise, which organized the event.

The two other new cases — a man in his 60s and a woman in her 70s — share a household with the woman in her 70s who was identified as the second confirmed case of coronavirus in Southern Nevada. They remain self-isolated at home, while the woman who was the second confirmed case remains hospitalized and in serious condition.

Health district officials said that the woman only reported traveling to Reno prior to falling ill but didn’t go so far as to say that the case is proof that coronavirus is spreading within the state’s borders.

“It points out to the likelihood of actually being locally acquired, and that's something that we are also looking into,” said Dr. Fermin Leguen, the district’s health officer.

The first Clark County patient, a man in his 50s who recently traveled to Washington state, a hotspot for the virus in the U.S., also remains hospitalized and in serious condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have officially confirmed his presumptive positive result.

Officials at MGM Resorts, which owns the Mirage, said that professional cleaners with specialized training are deep cleaning and sanitizing the room where the New York woman stayed during the summit and has continued to restrict access to the room. The company said it is coordinating with health officials to notify guests and employees who may have had prolonged contact with the guest.

Health authorities stopped short of making any broad recommendation about cancelling large public gatherings, including conferences, saying they are still exploring their options with partners in the community. The Republican Jewish Coalition is still planning to host its national leadership meeting at the Venetian this weekend, with President Donald Trump slated to attend.

“We are continually evaluating that … we are looking at what is happening in communities surrounding our area. And based on that, we will reach to the decision that we consider that is more efficient and protective to our community,” Leguen said. “I’m not saying we continue business as usual. We’re cancelling conferences today … We haven’t made any decision or recommendation about event cancellation, because again this is part of the process that we go with our partners and what is best for the community at large.”

The Women of Power Summit, which kicked off the same day that Nevada reported its first positive COVID-19 test, featured big-name speakers including ballerina Misty Copeland, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile and “The Cosby Show” actress Phylicia Rashad. But Edmond said he couldn’t offer blanket advice on whether other event organizers should cancel their conventions based on his company’s current experience with coronavirus.

“It’s a moving target. Obviously we didn’t cancel our event. What we knew two weeks ago was a lot different than what we know now,” Edmond said in an interview. “Things changed dramatically in the last week … there’s no way to counsel others and you have to be vigilant.”

Leguen emphasized that the risk of transmission of the disease in Clark County remains low.

“We don’t see a reason for our community to panic about this today, based on what is happening today,” he said. “Again, we are talking about five patients in a population of more than 2 million people. And those patients have been isolated, they have been receiving treatment from the medical providers, and our medical facilities are fully equipped to provide care for this particular condition.”

He said the authority has 800 tests right now and, with help from the governor’s office, expects to receive about 20,000 tests in the near future from the CDC.

— Shannon Miller, Megan Messerly and Michelle Rindels

CDC announcing $6.5 million in funding for Nevada coronavirus response

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to provide Nevada with more than $6.5 million in funding to support state and local health departments in their coronavirus responses.

The grant, announced on Wednesday, comes after Congress passed an $8.3 billion spending package last week geared at COVID-19 response.

“State and local health departments are on the frontlines of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we are deeply grateful for their work,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “CDC is distributing this new funding extremely rapidly, as called for by Congress. President Trump, and his entire administration will continue working to ensure state and local jurisdictions have the resources they need to keep Americans safe and healthy.”

A long list of other states and territories are also receiving money as part of $605 million disbursement. The largest portions are going to California ($42 million) and Texas ($37 million). 

— Michelle Rindels

State reports four ‘presumptively positive’ and one CDC-confirmed case of COVID-19

New data from state officials show there are four presumptive COVID-19 cases in Nevada and one that has been positively confirmed to be the illness by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services also said that as of 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 168 people who were tested were found not to have coronavirus. State officials did not immediately provide details on what appears to be a fifth presumptive positive test; up until the Wednesday statement, four cases had been reported by health authorities.

The numbers released Wednesday represent a major ramp-up in testing from a week ago, when the state reported 14 negative tests and no positive tests.

“We recognize that this is a quickly evolving situation and appreciate our partners and their work to provide this information to share with Nevada communities,” Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Washoe County Health District indicated a patient whose local test turned up positive last week had been confirmed by the CDC to be positive.

The state says that 164 people are under public health monitoring as of Tuesday afternoon, while another 341 had completed the process of supervision — a two-week period during which health authorities monitor people at risk for symptoms.

Those under monitoring include “travelers from an affected region referred to local health districts for monitoring or individuals who may have had close contact with a traveler.”

— Michelle Rindels & Megan Messerly

CDC officially confirms Washoe County man’s ‘presumptive positive’ COVID-19 test; health district has no new positives to report

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that a Washoe County man who tested “presumptively positive” for COVID-19 last week indeed has the illness.

Confirmation of the local test, which was reported Tuesday in a news conference by Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick, came in about four days. Confirmation of a second presumptively positive test in Washoe County is still pending, but there have been no additional presumptive positive cases in Washoe County to date and the statewide number of reported positive cases remains at four as of Tuesday.

“We took the initial positive — our presumptive positive — and took all actions with the presumption that that was going to be confirmed by the CDC,” Dick said. “So nothing changes with the way that we’re dealing with that person and they remain isolated at home and I wish them a speedy recovery.”

Dick also offered updates on a group of 49 asymptomatic Nevadans who were on a Grand Princess cruise and will be brought home to Nevada where they will be self-quarantined at home. He declined to say how many were coming to Northern Nevada, or to specific counties, and said he didn’t know when or where they would arrive.

But he said health authorities will be transporting passengers home securely, while wearing protective equipment and sanitizing the vehicles. He said the health authorities are working to ensure the isolated former cruise ship passengers have the food and medicine deliveries they need while they are kept away from the general public.

Those who disobey the rules of their quarantine could face criminal penalties, Dick said, but the health district has other ideas on how to ensure the isolation period is enforced. They will be provided with thermometers to help them monitor their symptoms during the home quarantine period and will remain under supervision of their local health authority.

Dick was unable to provide the exact number of coronavirus tests available to Nevadans, but said that the state has “adequate capacity.” While the state testing laboratory has “identified a path forward” for resupplying test kits if they run low, Dick said he hasn’t heard that the lab has received a fresh shipment of testing supplies from the CDC.

“There has been messaging that everybody can be tested if they want to be tested. And that's not the reality of the situation that we're in,” he said. “We're still providing assessments for who are the appropriate people to use that testing capacity for."

He said people who think they have symptoms of COVID-19 should call the health district at 775-328-2427, where staff can evaluate their situation. Symptoms of mild cases can be as minor as a sniffle, Dick said, while more severe cases can involve fever, respiratory problems, coughing and nausea.

He emphasized that "the risk remains extremely low of COVID-19 in our community," but added that the coronavirus situation in the U.S. is not at the same phase as it is in China, where the outbreak is showing signs of slowing.

"I think it's premature to look at China and say that situation is over and we don't need to worry about things here. It's certainly encouraging to see the news out of China. I think we need to remain vigilant in our efforts to try to prevent" the spread of COVID-19.

— Tabitha Mueller & Michelle Rindels

Government outlines plan for secure return home for Nevada residents on Grand Princess cruise after ship reported coronavirus cases

Nevadans aboard a cruise ship in the San Francisco Bay identified as a locus for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus will be allowed to return home to quarantine, Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote in a letter to passengers Tuesday afternoon.

In the brief letter, Sisolak told passengers to expect a call from their local health authorities to evaluate their home living situations and ensure that they are prepared for the required isolation period. The timing and specifics of their flights home to Nevada will be determined by federal authorities, he said.

The move to bring the 49 Nevadans onboard the boat home means they will not be sent to a military base in Texas or Georgia for a 14-day quarantine period as initially anticipated.

“My office has been working around the clock with federal agencies and state and local health authorities to coordinate your return home in the most efficient and safe manner,” Sisolak wrote.

The Governor’s Office and Nevada Department of Health and Human Services have been forming the “safest and most secure plan” to bring these Nevadans home since Sunday evening, officials said, noting the health of the cruise passengers and other state residents needed to be safeguarded in the process.

Sisolak had initially asked federal health and defense authorities if any military facilities in Nevada could be used to isolate and monitor returning passengers, but said they indicated it was not feasible.

Nevada has agreed to certain conditions on bringing home the 49 Nevadans who have not shown symptoms of COVID-19. After being tested for the illness, they will fly back on “secure air transportation provided by the federal government and will not enter any buildings of any commercial airport in the state.”

Local health officials are arranging secure and isolated transportation from the airports to the cruise passengers’ homes, where the passengers will be required to sign a “Declaration of Self Quarantine” affirming they will stay apart from other people for 14 days. 

“They will be securely returned to their homes for the mandatory 14-day isolation and monitoring period, under supervision of their local health districts,” officials said in a statement.

State officials said they won’t be releasing any other information that could lead to the identification of the passengers being brought back to Nevada.

The Grand Princess has been floating off the coast of California since Thursday while federal officials tested some symptomatic passengers and crew members after a passenger on the previous cruise on the boat died after contracting the virus. In total, 21 people on the boat — 19 crew members and two passengers — have tested positive for the virus, though health officials have said all the Nevadans on board are currently asymptomatic.

Sisolak said in the letter that state and local health authorities are “prepared to support and safeguard” Grand Princess passengers and their families, friends and community in the most efficient manner possible to protect everyone involved from the potential spread of COVID-19.”

He also acknowledged that the “lack of information and misinformation” about what would happen to the Grand Princess passengers has “resulted in considerable anxiety and frustration.”

“Your congressional delegation, state and local health authorities, and I strongly share your frustration.” Sisolak said. “I can assure you that my frustration will be loudly and clearly expressed to leaders in Washington D.C.”

— Jackie Valley, Michelle Rindels & Megan Messerly

Second Clark County case is a woman in her 70s with only in-state reported travel

A woman in her 70s who traveled in state prior to developing her symptoms is the second patient in Clark County to test presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus, Southern Nevada Health District officials announced Monday afternoon.

A health district spokeswoman, asked whether the patient’s lack of out-of-state travel history is an indication to health district officials that the virus is spreading within the state’s borders, only said in an email that their investigation is “ongoing at this time.” The three other cases in the state all reported out-of-state travel to affected areas prior to developing symptoms.

Health district officials said that the woman is currently hospitalized and in isolation, but did not elaborate on her condition or whether she has any underlying conditions. They added that two adults have been identified as close contacts of the woman and have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.

A man in his 50s who was the first in the state to test presumptively positive for the virus through the Southern Nevada VA Healthcare System remains hospitalized and in serious condition, health district officials said.

— Megan Messerly

Washoe health officials identify, test close contacts of positive cases

All symptomatic close contacts of the two Northern Nevada men who tested presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus have tested negative for the virus, Washoe County Health District officials announced Monday morning.

Kevin Dick, the health officer for the district, said the close contacts will continue to remain in self-isolation at home for 14 days to see if they develop any symptoms, but that the results suggest that there has not been any identified “local transmission” of the virus at this point. 

The health district is additionally working with federal and state officials to monitor the status of 49 Nevada residents currently aboard a Grand Princess cruise to Hawaii set to disembark in Oakland today after 21 people, two passengers and 19 crew members, tested positive.

Steve Waclo, a Carson City resident currently aboard the Grand Princess, said in an email Monday morning that he and his wife Zita have been confined to their cabin but are “fortunate to have a balcony for fresh air and watching Coast Guard boats coming and going.” He expected that the disembarkation process would extend into Tuesday or Wednesday, and that Nevada passengers will be sent to military bases in Texas and Georgia for a 14-day quarantine, whether or not they test positive.

“Although we are in the critical age group, both of us are in otherwise excellent health,” Waclo added.

The 14-day quarantine period for previous passengers of the cruise ship, which included 40 Nevadans, has now ended, Dick said. Those passengers had sailed on the Grand Princess to Mexico and disembarked on Feb. 21.

Health officials also added that the state is working to establish COVID-19 as a reportable, communicable disease, which will require private lab companies Quest and LabCorp to report results to local health authorities as they begin commercial testing for coronavirus in the near future.

— Megan Messerly and Daniel Rothberg

Read our previous coverage of coronavirus in the Silver State

Multimillion-dollar marketing contract with Raiders draws scrutiny at water authority's advisory committee

A photo rendering of the Las Vegas Stadium

A contentious $30 million, 10-year marketing deal between the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Raiders is still on the table after two months of delay, but several members of an advisory panel that was tasked to review the agreement have raised questions about how cost-effective it is.

The deal — a multi-year contract for digital and physical advertising and other outreach perks involving Raiders branding and team members — was discussed Wednesday during a two-hour presentation on the agency’s conservation efforts to date. Business and conservation voices on the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee brought up several concerns about the contract, including its target audience and unpredictable outcomes in customer behavior.

“Looking at where that advertising is happening … Is it the people in the Las Vegas Valley who need to hear it or is it a stadium full of people from out of state?” asked Andy Maggi, a committee member and executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “I think differentiating where the targeting is happening, with that amount of money, is very important.”

Two committee members, Nevada Resort Association chief Virginia Valentine and economist John Restrepo, agreed that the proposed outreach and marketing efforts do not guarantee that customers will conserve more water.

“I don’t know how you tease out, with the Raiders sponsorship, enhanced compliance,” Valentine said. “If enhanced compliance means getting people to not water on Sunday, and all the stuff in the campaign is geared toward the [Vegas Golden] Knights or Raiders telling you not to water on Sunday, it seems like a really difficult thing to measure.”

Valentine also expressed concern about the length of the contract, saying that changes in technology might provide more efficient conservation means that would have more predictable returns on investment than the Raiders outreach effort might have.

Officials have said that the marketing campaign would allow the water authority to reach an estimated 169 million impressions and would yield an annual average estimated water savings of 900 million gallons.

General Manager John Entsminger said that outreach efforts cannot be quantified in terms of gallons per capita per day (GPCD) customers use, but that outreach efforts provide a needed boost to achieve the water authority’s 105 GPCD benchmark goal. In 2018, the GPCD was hovering around that, at 113.

The contract, which the water authority board and the Raiders have been negotiating since July, had not been presented to the committee for consideration prior to Wednesday’s meeting, according to water authority public services senior manager Scott Huntley. It was initially scheduled for approval during the November meeting of the full SNWA board, but was re-scheduled for the advisory board’s meeting in January.

Huntley said the decision on the Raiders deal, which was presented to the advisory committee as part of the conservation package presented on Wednesday, was deferred so that the board could “take the temperature” of the committee before proceeding. 

The advisory committee is expected to produce a recommendation report on all conservation strategies proposed to the committee by March. Depending on those recommendations, the board may choose to act on the Raiders deal as a separate item, or group the multi-million dollar contract in with the larger conservation package that was presented to the committee on Wednesday — similar to marketing deals between the authority and the Vegas Golden Knights and the Aviators minor league baseball team. 

Disclosure: Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson's media consulting firm, E Thompson Media, helps produce "the Stat Pack" and "Fact Pack," a business and economic website and newsletter co-published by John Restrepo.