Experts urge statewide water metering, conservation to fight drought

CARSON CITY — A state panel Friday finalized short-term and long-range recommendations for dealing with drought, from requiring meters on all water outlets in Nevada to stepping up drought monitoring and conservation efforts.

The recommendations to be delivered to Gov. Brian Sandoval from the Nevada Drought Forum are a starting point. Much of the heavy lifting, if the governor pursues the findings, will come during the 2017 Legislature.

"There's work to be done following this effort," said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources appointed by the governor to chair the drought panel.

Sandoval created the forum in April following four years of drought and looming uncertainties over how long it will last. While forecasts call this year for a strong El Nino year — a weather phenomenon associated with wetter than usual winters, especially in the Southwest — its effect on Northern Nevada is not assured.

"There's still quite a bit of uncertainty whether we'll get a wetter-than-average year," said Doug Boyle, Nevada's state climatologist and member of the forum.

Since April, the forum has held public workshops at different areas around the state and a three-day drought summit in Carson City in September before narrowing its priorities.

Most of the panel's recommendations pertain to areas outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which gets most of its water from Lake Mead fed by the Colorado River. That system, which supplies seven states and Mexico, has been in drought conditions for 15 years.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has said aggressive conservation measures and a sophisticated system that allows 90 percent of water used indoors to be recycled and used again has dramatically eased the region's drought concerns.

But that's not the case around the rest of the state, where rivers reduced to a trickle and plummeting groundwater levels have led to finger pointing among various water users.

Besides statewide water metering, the panel recommended public water suppliers include water efficiency standards for new development and adopt tiered rate structures to promote conservation.

"In a perfect world, everything would be measured so we knew where everything was going," Jason King, Nevada's state water engineer, said after the meeting.

Agriculture is the state's biggest water user, and the recommendations encourage farmers and livestock producers to develop and use water-saving technologies and practices, such as drip irrigation, crop covering and changing to less thirsty crops.

The report also asks local governments to address the issue of thirsty landscape requirements imposed by many homeowner associations.

One issue raised repeatedly during forum meetings was the "use it or lose it" provision in state law that many say discourages conservation and invites waste. Under that doctrine, holders of water rights are required to show beneficial use for all their allotted water or those rights can be forfeited and given to someone else.

While the forum recommended a "review" of potential changes to that provision as a way to increase opportunities for conservation, it did not offer any specifics.

King said those details would be hashed out in a bill draft for consideration by the 2017 Legislature if the matter is pursued.

Some other recommendations:

— Local and regional water plans should consider long-term supply and demand projections to ensure sustainable water supplies;

— Explore allowing small-scale capture of rainwater;

— Work with federal agencies to improve drought monitoring, including distinguishing between vegetation and hydrological drought conditions;

— Adequately fund the state's water grants program to help fund capital improvements to aging water infrastructure;

— Establish and maintain a statewide public information campaign on water conservation, even in wet years, to encourage behavioral changes in water consumption.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb.