Vegas Water Officials Back Off Declaring Drought Emergency

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Southern Nevada water officials are backing off plans to impose emergency drought measures next year, crediting area residents with cutting water consumption.

"There's no need to go to the next step," said Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.

She told the authority board on Wednesday that while the drought hasn't eased, area residents cut water consumption about 15 percent from 2002 to 2003.

"We're watching what the community is doing very, very closely, and the response has been outstanding," she said.

The shift drew criticism from Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, which monitors drought issues.

"I think there has been a pattern of denial by Pat (Mulroy) and the water authority," Patterson said. "It's troubling because they're going to have to get really serious about sustainable water use."

Mulroy said water consumption in the Las Vegas area dropped from 318,000 acre-feet in 2002 to less than 272,000 acre-feet in 2003, while the area population continued to grew at a rate of about 5,000 people a month.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to serve one and a half average southern Nevada households, according to water authority figures.

The authority credits a "Water Smart" landscape program with helping cut outdoor water use by encouraging the replacement of thirsty grass turf with dry desert landscaping.

Environmentalist Jeffery van Ee, who served on a Southern Nevada Water Authority panel that considered water austerity measures, said the authority should also encourage indoor water conservation. While Nevada gets return-flow credits for sewer water it collects, treats and returns to Lake Mead, van Ee said the process could eventually foul the regional water supply.

Emergency would be the most severe of three drought stages the water authority set in February 2003. It would allow water-rate hikes, tighter restrictions on water use, bigger fines for water scofflaws and a complete ban on watering decorative turf.

The region gets about 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam. With the lake level expected to drop below 1,125 feet above sea level by year's end, the water authority was planning to declare a drought emergency. The lake elevation was just under 1,127 feet on Thursday.

Authority officials are recommending the Lake Mead link be dropped as a drought index in favor of criteria dependent on water consumption.

Exact benchmarks have not been set, but an emergency would be declared if water use increases, the drought significantly worsens, or both.

"An emergency should be just that, an emergency," Mulroy said.


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