Although the West's drought is easing slightly, communities will continue to face water challenges because of booming populations and endangered species protection, an Interior Department official said.
Testifying before a Senate committee examining water issues in the West, Bennett Raley, assistant secretary for water and science, said Tuesday that Nevada and other states will be called upon to address water supply issues even after the current five-year drought ends.
"The new paradigm of this century is water supply issues will no longer be driven by droughts," Raley said at the hearing in Washington, D.C. "We will have conflict in normal years, and that conflict will affect economies of national importance. The demands for water in many basins of the West exceed the available supply even in normal years."
Like much of the West, Nevada is entering its fifth year of drought.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority envisions tapping its surface water rights from the Virgin and Muddy rivers, which could include building a $1 billion-plus pipeline or allowing the authority to draw the equivalent water from Lake Mead. The concept was among items discussed at a meeting last week of the Colorado River basin states.
Interior Department attorneys are reviewing whether such an arrangement would be legal under a 1922 compact governing the Colorado River.
Since the drought began in 1999, Lake Mead has dropped about 75 feet, or about 40 percent of its storage capacity, the lowest since 1968, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
The drought has not hit the Colorado River basin states as hard as other areas, largely because of the river's two reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell in Utah. But Nevada is beginning to feel the pinch of the drought.
This year, the Department of Interior denied southern Nevada's request to draw 335,312 acre feet from Lake Mead. Instead, it granted the state 317,700 acre feet, said SNWA spokesman Vince Alberta. An acre foot of water is enough to supply a family of four for a year.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., whose home state farmers depend on the Rio Grande River, pointed to climate studies that predict 70 percent less snowfall in 50 years. By some estimates, snowpacks contribute up to 80 percent of Western water supplies.