Entsminger sees valley’s water glass as half full

Global warming threatens to turn the parched West to toast.

Lake Mead’s infamous bathtub ring has been there so long it no longer shocks the sensibilities. And Southern Nevada’s endless thirst has officials considering a controversial, multibillion-dollar pipeline from rural counties that has critics conjuring references to “Chinatown.”

But, all things considered, Las Vegas Valley Water District General Manager John Entsminger is feeling pretty good these days.

No, really.

He’s not pacing or panicking. He’s not about to declare Southern Nevada circling the drain when it comes to water availability.

On the contrary. To hear him tell it, the water supply for our bustling metropolitan area is in better than fair shape. We even have a lot of water in reserve.

This isn’t, he said during a recent lunch at the Springs Preserve, a signal to start letting the spigots run. He still recommends xeriscape desert landscaping over the conventional bermuda-and-deciduous trees of a previous generation. He still preaches the gospel of conservation, repeated so often by his predecessor Pat Mulroy.

But Entsminger, a longtime water district official, approaches Southern Nevada’s water health as a decidedly glass-is-half-full kind of guy.

In the few months he’s led the district an Southern Nevada Water Authority, he’s emerged as a steady and calming influence on the extremely sensitive subject.

He likens the maturing of the water authority to the evolution of the federal Bureau of Reclamation which for decades was devoted to building dams throughout the West and now is focused on operating and maintaining them.

“I think the misperception in Las Vegas is that we don’t have enough water,” Entsminger says. “… We’ve done a tremendous job of driving down our demand. Because of that, we’re in a good position water quantity-wise.”

Just how good?

Thanks to conservation and other increases in efficiency, the district has banked seven to eight years of water. Some of it’s in the ground in Southern Nevada or being stored in Arizona and California. Some of it is in a “virtual” bank, meaning that a record is kept and the water can be retrieved when needed. The community uses only about two-thirds of its comparatively paltry allotment from the Colorado River.

The water pumped into the local aquifer is so robust that it threatens to reach the surface and “pop up some swimming pools” in the northwest part of the valley, he says.

Once the third intake at Lake Mead is completed next year, officials will be able to gain access to water no matter the drought conditions.

So, after that, the water district can cut back, right?

Not exactly.

“We’re still going to see growth,” Entsminger says of the water works. “There will be more infrastructure built, but probably not at the scale you saw in the ’80s, ’90s and the first part of this century. The water authority and district are going through that same cultural change experienced by the Bureau of Reclamation.”

It’s possible Southern Nevada’s years of break-neck growth are behind it, but Entsminger isn’t a betting man. He’s obviously more of a banker than a gambler, and that’s a good thing.

“The real question becomes, ‘What do you do moving forward?’ ” he asks. “And we don’t think it’s time to rest on our laurels or that we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. We can do a lot more in conservation. But the question is not whether you grow, but how you grow. And some of that is just dictated by the market.”

That kind of rhetoric is not only reassuring to skeptics, but it also works from a political standpoint.

If Southern Nevada water officials ever really need to make their pitch to proceed with the rural groundwater pumping and pipeline plan, a project which their own analysts say could cost as much as $15 billion, they must be able to make the most credible argument in the face of formidable opposition. Those “Chinatown” references might make them cringe, but that’s what they’re up against.

Entsminger’s reasoned approach isn’t dramatic, but it promises to add credibility to the water district’s ledger.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.