CARSON CITY, Nev. — Record-breaking heat and historic drought in the U.S. West are doing little to discourage cities from planning to welcome millions of new residents in the decades ahead. From Phoenix to Boise, officials are preparing for a future with more people and less water, seeking to balance growth and conservation. 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 Management tasked with maintaining it for future generations.
That’s led officials in states like Nevada and Utah to lobby the federal government to 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 in the past with provisions that allocate proceeds to conservation projects, preserve other federal lands and prevent road construction, logging, or energy exploration.
A small group of opponents argues that routinely approving these kinds of “swaps” to facilitate growth isn’t sustainable, particularly in areas that rely on a shrinking water supply. 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 flows to Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In these two manmade 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, which will prompt cuts in the share of water 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 week. The Nevada Democrat is pushing what she calls the most enormous 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 San Francisco.
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. Jocelyn Torres, field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said at the Senate hearing Wednesday that the protections would restore lands to more efficiently capture carbon, which would help mitigate rising temperatures. Our public lands present our best chance to address climate change, our biodiversity crisis, and invest in our local communities and economy,” she said.