Water, growth, gone

The inevitable happened. The demand for water in the southern Truckee Meadows officially outstripped supply. What are we going to do now that the water genie says, “No more wishes"?

The Washoe County Water Resources Department says we must obtain surface water somewhere and spend tens of millions of dollars to recharge the ground water basin south of Reno. Until now, developers could poke holes in the ground and suck up free water to grow new subdivisions and shopping centers. The public owns the water; developers profit from it.

An underground basin, the aquifer, is like your bank account. It holds water instead of money. It is an overdraft when we suck more water out than nature deposits. The bank teller in this case is the state engineer. Under state law, he controls the water rights and is supposed to protect the basin and the public.

What’s next?

Washoe County officials might create a water task force. Critics say the slow support for that idea is 30 years late. The state water plan, now gathering dust in Carson City, points out that Nevada lacks a comprehensive program to promote water conservation. Its “use it or lose it” water rights laws encourage water waste. Some state bureaucrats continue the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil act. That figures, since Gov. Kenny Guinn dismantled the state water planning division a few years back.

Why should America’s driest state bother with water planning? One needs only to look at Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. When growth sucked those aquifers dry, the ground subsided by a dozen feet. Pipes and well heads poke out of the ground like tombstones.

Southern Nevadans lost a precious resource. No bill was ever sent to the developers who profited from the unrestrained growth. No one rebuked the state and local officials who allowed that calamity. Now, Reno-area developers and growth-bedazzled public officials are replaying that senseless tragedy. County water planners want the public—nobody hears “the developers"—to recharge the underground basin.

Meanwhile, the water levels in the Truckee Meadows have dropped dozens of fee due to the overdrafts. Water planners predict another 40-foot drop. Home owners and business owners will be stuck with costs to drill new, deeper wells. Pumping by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority was cited as a main cause of the lowering of the water table. The situation cries out for the state engineer to balance the rights of home and business owners with those of the water authority.

The public should hold local officials accountable for irrational growth ordinances and show their outrage. The state engineer must stop fiddling while Nevada dries up. Tough, controlled growth ordinances can reduce the demand for water. Conservation can extend the use of limited supplies. The days of unrestrained growth have passed forever.

Southern Nevada has access to 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. That kept their overdraft from being a fatal mistake.

The Truckee Meadows has no such option. Here we must do it right. We must accept that water limits growth. Extraction now exceeds recharge. Only with conservation can growth continue.