Nevada lawmakers are considering a remarkable shift in allowing the water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Las Vegas to limit single-family residential use in the desert city and surrounding county.
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 to about 30,000 gallons above the average use. It's aimed mostly at the top 10% of water users that use 40% of the water in the residential sector, spokesperson Bronson Mack said.
“It’s a worst case scenario plan,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas, of the residential limit. “It makes sure that we prioritize the must-haves for a home. Your drinking water, your basic health and safety needs.”
The sweeping omnibus bill is one of the most significant to go before lawmakers this year in Nevada, 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.
Lawmakers heard testimony for the bill on Monday evening, which also includes converting many homes with unrecyclable septic tanks for wastewater to the county's recyclable sewage system in the coming decades. It also establishes a program to pay at least 50% of the transition as they look to secure more state and federal funds to help with the transition.
Water agency officials stressed during the two-hour hearing that the residential caps would not be used immediately, but rather if conditions become even more dire. The cap would be at about 160,000 gallons annually - an amount that about 20% of the agency's customers use - with the average single-family residence using close to 130,000 gallons annually, per the agency.
The authority hasn’t yet decided how it would implement or enforce the proposed limits, Mack said.
The residential use limits received widespread support from water policy experts, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and jurisdictions within the agency's limits, while opposition came from some southern Nevada residents who testified through video from Las Vegas.
“[For] a single-family home, you need to take into consideration: how many adults, family members are in this home?" said Sarah Patton of Las Vegas. "We have grown children that are currently living with us. That is more water use.”
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, a move that other cities later adopted. 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.
By the next legislative session in 2025 drought conditions could be much worse, Watts said, and “we have to decide what usage to prioritize” before then. Yet the longer-term goal is for other Nevada to be a leader in responsible use of the Colorado River's dwindling supply— even with deeper cuts looming.
“It’s a sign to every other sector across the Colorado River Basin, that we’re not going to wait for others,” Watts told lawmakers of the potential single-family residential caps. “We take the lead and work to reduce our consumptive use of water.”
The main point of opposition for the bill was the conversion of homes with septic systems to the sewage system, a major shift that would lead many homes to reroute their wastewater. Some Clark County residents were dissuaded by the possibility of giving up their septic system or worried about the cost.
“This is too much of a burden for these targeted homeowners,” said Michele Tombari who, like others, said spoke fondly of her septic system and did not want to switch. “If you want us to change what was already approved, what we already paid for, you need to pay 100% to have us change that.”
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.