CARSON CITY, Nev. — Record-breaking heat and historic drought in the U.S. West are doing little to discouragein the decades ahead. From Phoenix to Boise, officials are preparing for a future with more people and less water, seeking to . Development is constrained by the fact that 46% of the 11-state Western region is federal land, managed by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land .
That’s led officials in states like Nevada and Utah to lobby theto approve land transfers to allow developers to build homes and businesses on what had been public land. Supporters in the two states have won over environmentalists with provisions that allocate proceeds to conservation projects, preserve other road construction, logging, or energy exploration.
A few opponents argue that routinely approving these “swaps” to facilitate growth isn’t sustainable, particularly in areas that rely on a shrinking water supply. For the seven, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — a regional drought is so severe that less water flows to Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In these two artificial reservoirs, river water is stored. Suppose the level of Lake Mead keeps dropping through the summer as projected. In that case, the federal government will likely issue its first-ever official shortage declaration, prompting cuts Arizona and Nevada receive.
The predicament is playing out in the Las Vegas area, where environmental groups, local officials, and homebuilders united behind a proposal from U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto that was heard in the Senate this. The Nevada Democrat is pushing what she calls the most significant conservation bill in state history to designate more than 3,125 square miles (8,094 square kilometers) of land for additional protections — roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined — and 48 square miles (124 square kilometers) for commercial and residential development, which is about the size of .
Some conservationists support the proposal because it would add federal land to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for recreation and reclassify some undeveloped parts of Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as Bureau of Land Management “wilderness areas,” which carry stronger protections than national parks. At theWednesday, Jocelyn Torres, field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said the protections would restore lands to capture carbon, which would help mitigate rising temperatures more efficiently.
“Our public lands present our best chance to address last year., our biodiversity crisis, and invest in our local communities and economy,” she said. The effort mirrors land management pushes made over the past decade in Washington and Emery counties in Utah to designate wilderness and sell other parcels to developers to meet growth projections. The U.S. reported that St. George, in Washington County, was the nation’s fifth-fastest growing metro area
In both regions,is among othe fficials’ top concerns. Soaring home prices in California have added to a flow of people like Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, where open land, lower tax rates, and jobs attract new residents. The fast-growing Las Vegas area lacks the housing supply to meet projected population growth. A 2019 University of Nevada, Las Vegas, study that Cortez Masto’s legislation references launched the population in Clark County would increase by 35%, to 3.1 million residents, by 2060. That spike will be challenging to accommodate without or public lands.
“Due to this federal ownership, our options for planning and development are very constrained andagencies,” Clark County Director of Environment and Sustainability Marci Henson said. Growth may stretch an already limited water supply. Water officials support the proposal, which allocates funding to maintaining the channels used to recycle wastewater through Lake Mead. To prepare for growth, the region has enacted some of the U.S. West’s most aggressive conservation measures, including an outright ban on decorative grass in certain places.
Last year, water officials projected a worst-case scenario in which consumption patterns andcould force them to find other supplies as soon as 2056. the projections are concerning. “This legislation doesn’t have an identified, sustainable supply of water going out 50 years in the future,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Nevada-based conservation group Great Basin Water Network. “When you couple that with everything we’re reading about at Lake Mead and the Colorado River, it’s very precarious to put forward a bill inviting another 825,000 people to the Mojave Desert.”
Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said ihat the proposal “helps secure the water resources and facilities that SNWA needs to provide reliable and safe water to our customers for decades to come.” When Cortez Masto’s proposal was introduced, there was little mention of how water factors into plans for future growth or if the conservation components of the bill could have any impact. Roerink said the nmustbe accompanied by additional “serious, realistic modeling” of the Colorado River.
“When an entity says, ‘Let’s go and build some homes in this region,’ there’s an implication that water’s going to be there in perpetuity,” he said. Associated Press reporter Suman Naishadham in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Metz 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 to report on undercovered issues. This story was first published on June 18, 2021. It was updated on June 19, 2021, to correct the title of Marci Henson and the spelling of her first name. She is the Clark County director of Environment and Sustainability, not Department director, and her first name is spelled Marci, not Marcie.