CARSON CITY, Nevada – The record heat and historic drought in the western United States does little to discourage cities from planning to welcome millions of new residents in the decades to come.

From Phoenix to Boise, authorities are preparing for a future that is both more human and less water-intensive, seeking to balance growth and conservation. Development is constrained by the fact that 46% of the 11 states in the western region are federal lands, managed by agencies like the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management who are responsible for maintaining it for future generations.

This has led officials in states like Nevada and Utah to press the federal government to approve land transfers to allow developers to build homes and businesses on what was previously land. public. Supporters of both states have wowed environmentalists in the past with provisions that allocate revenue to conservation projects, preserve other federal lands, and prevent road construction, logging, or energy exploration.

A small group of opponents argue that the systematic endorsement of this type of “trade” to facilitate growth is not sustainable, especially in areas that depend on dwindling water supplies.

For the seven states that depend on the Colorado River – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – a regional drought is so severe that less water is flowing to Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two artificial reservoirs where the river water is stored.

If the level of Lake Mead continues to decline throughout the summer as planned, the federal government will likely issue its very first official declaration of shortage, leading to reductions in the water share that Arizona and Nevada have. receive.

The situation is playing out in the Las Vegas area, where environmental groups, local officials and home builders have united behind a proposal from U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto that was heard in the Senate this week.

The Nevada Democrat is pushing what she calls the largest 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 roughly the size of San Francisco.

Some environmentalists support the proposal because it would add federal land to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for recreation and reclassify undeveloped parts of Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as “Bureau of Land Management.” “Wilderness areas,” which offer stronger protections than national parks.

Jocelyn Torres, field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said during the Senate hearing on Wednesday that the protections would restore the lands to capture carbon more effectively, which would help mitigate rising temperatures.

“Our public lands present our best chance to tackle climate change, our biodiversity crisis and invest in our local communities and economy,” she said.

The effort reflects land management efforts over the past decade in Washington and Emery counties in Utah to designate the wilderness and sell other plots to developers to meet growth projections. The US Census Bureau reported that St. George, in Washington County, was the fifth fastest growing metropolitan area in the country last year.

In both regions, affordable housing is one of the authorities’ main concerns. Soaring California home prices have added to a flow of people leaving for neighboring states like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, where open land, lower tax rates and jobs attract new residents.

The fast growing Las Vegas area lacks housing supply to meet projected population growth. A 2019 study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which found that references to Cortez Masto’s legislation predicted that the population of Clark County would increase by 35%, to 3.1 million, from by 2060. This peak will be difficult to manage without building in existing communities or public lands.

“As a result of this federal ownership, our planning and development options are very limited and require constant coordination with federal agencies,” said Clark County Director of Environment and Sustainability Marci Henson.

Growth can stretch an already limited water supply. Water officials back the proposal, which allocates funds for the maintenance of canals used to recycle sewage through Lake Mead. The region has adopted some of the most aggressive conservation measures in the American West, including an outright ban on decorative grass in some places, to prepare for growth.

Last year, water officials predicted a worst-case scenario in which consumption patterns and climate change could force them to find alternative supplies as early as 2056. Critics say the projections are concerning.

“This legislation has no sustainable water supply identified in 50 years,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Nevada-based Great Basin Water Network conservation group. “When you put that together with everything we read about Lake Mead and the Colorado River, it is very precarious to propose a bill that invites 825,000 more people into the Mojave Desert.”

Southern Nevada Water Authority chief executive John Entsminger said in a statement that the proposal “helps secure the water resources and facilities that SNWA needs to provide reliable and safe water to our customers for the decades to come “.

When Cortez Masto’s proposal was brought forward, there was little question of how water accommodates future growth plans or whether the conservation elements of the bill might have an impact.

Roerink said the plan’s funding allocations for water infrastructure must be accompanied by additional “serious and realistic modeling” of the Colorado River.

“When an entity says, ‘Let’s go build houses in this area’, it implies that the water will be there in perpetuity,” he said.

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Associated Press reporter Suman Naishadham in Washington, DC, contributed to this report. Metz is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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This story was first published on June 18, 2021. It was updated on June 19, 2021, to correct Marci Henson’s title and the spelling of her first name. She is Clark County Director of Environment and Sustainability, not Director of the Air Quality Department, and her first name is written Marci, not Marcie.

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