While western states work to hash out a plan to save the crumbling Colorado River system, officials from Southern Nevada are preparing for the worst — including possible water restrictions in the state’s most populous county. The Nevada Legislature last week introduced Assembly Bill 220, an omnibus bill that comes from the minds of officials at the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Most significantly, the legislation gives the water authority the ability to impose hefty water restrictions on individual homes in Southern Nevada, where three-quarters of Nevada’s 3.2 million residents live and rely on the drought-stricken Colorado River for 90 percent of their water…
The bill, if approved and signed into law in its current form, would stand as another substantial step toward conserving Nevada’s tiny 1.8 percent share of the Colorado River, a river that has seen far less water in recent years than what current management plans allow to be taken out between the seven states that rely upon it for drinking water and agriculture irrigation…Under the bill’s current language, the water authority’s board of directors could limit residential water use to as little as 0.5 acre-feet per home annually, or about 163,000 gallons…
The average single-family home in Southern Nevada uses about 130,000 to 132,000 gallons annually, according to the water authority, meaning that such restrictions would be felt more by the valley’s larger residential water users…Such restrictions could be approved by the authority if the federal government declares water shortages in the Colorado River — which has been the case for each of the past two years, and projections for Lake Mead’s water levels show that shortage conditions likely will remain in place into the foreseeable future…
Bronson Mack, spokesman for the water authority, said the change would allow the agency to be more flexible and responsive in dealing with water shortage situations, especially if conditions along the river degrade to a point where the federal government was forced to impose restrictions across the entire basin and significantly limit water deliveries.
The Kootzaduka’a says the state water board should live up to its recently adopted environmental justice promises to save their cultural and natural heritage.
Against the backdrop of a severe drought linked with global warming, conservation advocates and Native Americans in California are calling for a temporary emergency stop to all surface water diversions from Mono Lake, contending that continuing to drain the watershed, along with the long-term drought, threaten critical ecosystems, as well as the Kootzaduka’a tribe’s cultural connection with the lake.
In a pair of letters written in December 2022, the Mono Lake Committee and California Indian Legal Services claimed that Mono Lake’s water has dropped to a level requiring emergency action, and asked that all surface water diversions be curtailed until the lake’s elevation gets closer to an elevation of 6,392 feet. That was set as a protective level for Mono by the state in 1994, but the lake has never come close to reaching it.
The “urgent and developing ecological crisis” threatens Mono Lake with “imminent harm,” Mono Lake Committee executive director Geoff McQuilkin wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the state’s Division of Water Rights, asking the agency to suspend the “export of water diverted from Rush and Lee Vining creeks from the Mono Basin and requiring delivery of that water into Mono Lake.”
Writing on behalf of the Kootzaduka’a Tribe, which has lived in the area around Mono Lake for thousands of years, California Indian Legal Services attorney Michael Godbe supported the request in a Dec. 22 letter to the state water board. He asked that “alldiversions be halted until the Lake reaches a level of at least 6384’ above sea level, at minimum, in order to prevent further deterioration of the Tribe’s cultural connection with the lake.”
Los Angeles Denies Emergency
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which drained Mono Lake’s ecosystem by diverting its tributary streams, responded to the Mono Lake Committee’s ecological concerns in a Jan. 11 letter to the board, but did not address the Kootzaduka’a Tribe’s concerns about its cultural connections to the unique watershed.
“First and foremost, no ‘emergency conditions’ exist that would warrant an emergency regulation,” senior assistant general manager of LADWP’s water system Anselmo Collins wrote. The actions proposed by the Mono Lake Committee would “likely violate LADWP’s procedural and substantive rights,” he added.
Mono, an ancient salt lake, is located in the high desert of Eastern California and replenished by several freshwater streams flowing out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The inflowing stream water maintained a balanced ecosystem for at least 1 million years, nurturing breeding and feeding birds, as well as Indigenous people, for millennia.
That balance was disrupted in 1941 when Los Angeles started diverting millions of gallons of water from the watershed every year and sending it 300 miles south for municipal use through the Los Angeles Aqueduct without due consideration of Indigenous water rights or environmental protection.
About 10 years later, the state water board finalized a restoration plan that limits diversions. It requires specific seasonal stream flows to rehabilitate streams, and also mandates that Mono must rise to an elevation of 6,392 feet, the lowest level deemed protective of the lake’s ecosystem.
The 1994 plan said the lake would reach that level in 20 years, but it was based on projections made before global warming started shriveling the Sierra Nevada snowpack with a multiyear drought.
And it was finalized without meaningful consideration of the lake’s value as a cultural resource for the Kootzduka’a Tribe, Godbe wrote in his letter to the board. Prompt action is critical to protect the tribe’s “previously unconsidered” connection with the lake, he added.
Mono Lake and the five creeks that feed it have “indisputable cultural significance for the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a people,” he wrote. “In the words of the Tribe, ‘Kootzabaa’a (Mono Lake) is the physical, cultural and spiritual center of the Kootzaduka’a people.’”
The tribe’s position is that Los Angeles should not be allowed to continue to divert water each year “when the lake has failed to even once” reach the mandated level, “and all diversions must immediately cease until the Lake rises out of its current crisis.”
The tribe has about 90 members, mostly living around Mono Lake and in the wider region, and the cultural history of its subsistence relationship with the lake has been continuously passed down by tribal elders from generation to generation to the present. It’s been well-documented by historians, Godbe wrote.
The collective gathering of the brine fly pupae that the tribe call kootzabe from Mono’s groves of spiky tufa—rocky spires that rise from the water—plays a central role in that history. The life cycle of the brine flies is intimately linked with the level of the lake and the freshwater flowing, because it’s the combination of those two things that form the tufa towers upon which the flies lay their eggs.
“These tufa grove shallows are where the Tribe harvests kootzabe, as waves dislodge the puparium from the columns so that they float in the shallows and become available for harvest,” the tribal letter to the water board explained. “However, when the lake level recedes below the bottom of the tufa column, the flies cannot go underwater to lay eggs, and the Tribe cannot then harvest the fly pupae in the shallows.”
The abundance of kootzabe was “life-sustaining to tribal members, who relied on the processed fly pupae as a source of protein to get them through the long cold winters,” but all previous mandates on stream flows and lake levels have “failed to formally or meaningfully involve the Tribe,” Godbe wrote.