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Las Vegas water agency seeks power to limit residential use

Colorado River Residential Water Use
John Locher/AP
FILE - A home with a swimming pool abuts the desert on the edge of the Las Vegas valley July 20, 2022, in Henderson, Nev. Nevada lawmakers on Monday, March 13, 2023, will consider another shift in water use for one of the driest major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Vegas is seeking authority to limit what comes out of residents' taps. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers are considering a significant shift in water use for Las Vegas, one of the driest major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The water agency managing the city's Colorado River water supply is seeking authority to limit what comes out of residents' taps. Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas says a sweeping omnibus bill under consideration is a worst-case scenario plan to ensure drinking water, basic health and safety are prioritized during dire times. The bill would give the agency the ability to cap single-family residential water in southern Nevada to about 160,000 gallons annually. The average family uses about 130,000 gallons, meaning the largest water users could be targeted.

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers are set to consider a remarkable shift in allowing the water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Las Vegas to limit residential use in the desert city.

It's another potential step in a decades-long effort to ensure one of the driest metropolitan areas in the U.S. has enough water. Already, in Las Vegas ornamental lawns are banned, new swimming pools have a size limit and the water used inside homes is recycled.

While some agencies across the U.S. West tie increased water use to increased cost, Nevada could be the first to give a water agency — the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the power to restrict what comes out of residents' taps in state statute. The provision is one among many in a sweeping omnibus bill that goes before legislators Monday afternoon.

Nevada is one of seven states that rely on the Colorado River. Deepening drought, climate change and demand have sunk key Colorado River reservoirs that depend on melting snow to their lowest levels on record.

"It's a worst case scenario plan," said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas. "It makes sure that we prioritize the must-haves for a home. Your drinking water, your basic health and safety needs."

The bill would give the water authority leeway to limit water usage in single-family homes to 160,000 gallons annually, incorporate homes with septic systems into the city's sewer system and provide funding for the effort.

The average home uses about 130,000 gallons of water per year, meaning the largest water users would feel the pinch, according to the agency.

The authority hasn't yet decided how it would implement or enforce the proposed limits, which would not automatically go into effect, spokesperson Bronson Mack said.

Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90% of its water supply. Nevada has lost about 8% of that supply already because of mandatory cuts implemented as the river dwindles further. Most residents haven't felt the effects because Southern Nevada Water Authority recycles a majority of water used indoors and doesn't use the full allocation.

Nevada lawmakers banned ornamental grass at office parks, in street medians and entrances to housing developments two years ago. This past summer, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, capped the size of new swimming pools at single-family residential homes to about the size of a three-car garage.

A state edict carries greater weight than city ordinances and more force in messaging, said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which monitors western water policy.

Watts said he is hopeful other municipalities that have been hesitant to clamp down on residential water use will follow suit as "good stewards of the river" with even deeper cuts to the Colorado River supply looming.

Snow that has inundated northern Nevada and parts of California serves as only a temporary reprieve from dry conditions. Some states in the Colorado River basin have gridlocked on how to cut water usage.

Water from the Colorado River largely is used for agriculture in other basin states: Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. Municipal water is a relatively small percentage of overall use.

As populations grow and climate change leaves future supplies uncertain, policymakers are paying close attention to all available options to manage water supplies.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, uses a tiered cost structure where rates rise sharply when residents reach 10,000 gallons during the summer months.

Scottsdale, Arizona, recently told residents in a community outside city limits that it no longer could provide a water source for them. Scottsdale argued action was required under a drought management plan to guarantee enough water for its own residents.

Elsewhere in metro Phoenix, water agencies aren't currently discussing capping residential use, Sheri Trap of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said in an email. But cities like Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe have said they will cut down on usage overall.

___ AP writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow him on Twitter: @gabestern326.