When electric car company Faraday Future was thinking of building a manufacturing plant in Southern Nevada, it needed water.
Its operation would require 630 acre-feet of water, or about the amount it takes to water one golf course, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. With Faraday projected to directly create 4,500 jobs, the calculation was easy for officials.
“In my mind, the economic tradeoff of the consumptive use of one golf course for 4,500 jobs … was water well applied to economic diversification,” Entsminger said.
That calculation becomes harder when water demands outsize economic impact. “Five hundred jobs with 5,000 acre-feet of water? That’s crazy,” said Steve Hill, director of the governor’s office of economic development.
There’s a perceived tension between water and economic development, particularly in Southern Nevada, a region not known for its abundant streams and verdant fields. But officials say the region is actually much better equipped to handle water demands than its residents might think.
That was one of the key takeaways from a a daylong conference on Friday of officials and experts at the UNLV Boyd School of Law, the first of two events policymakers have dubbed the “Week of Water.”
Entsminger called the water situation in Southern Nevada “fantastic,” saying the region uses 43 percent less water today than it did 15 years ago and has enough water reserves banked in different reservoirs and aquifers to supply water for eight years.
One of the big questions the state will have to address moving forward is the balance between old thinking about water and new priorities. At one end of the spectrum is people who believe water should be entirely regulated by the free market; at the other, people who believe water is a public trust, Entsminger said. Finding the “sweet spot” between the two is the hard part, he said.
Allocating water rights was one of the subjects investigated by a state panel of experts last year, who sent a list of short-term and long-term recommendations for dealing with the drought and Nevada’s water supply to Gov. Brian Sandoval in November.
The panel’s chairman, Leo Drozdoff, director of the state department of conservation and natural resources, said the panel was important in bringing stakeholders together to try to find common ground. Some of the recommendations could come before the Nevada Legislature in 2017.
“Many of these are expensive, many of these could be somewhat controversial,” Drozdoff said. “We have to work with (the governor) about prioritizing these things.”
But right now, the state faces the immediate burden of showing companies that Nevada is able to supply the water they need. Former CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance Tom Skancke refers to the problem as the “Las Vegas theory of hydromoralism” — more simply, the belief that Las Vegas doesn’t have any water, isn’t sustainable, and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
“When that system is out of balance or perceived to be out of balance … they get concerned,” Skancke said. “‘If I make this investment, will I be able to get a return if I have a 50-year return on my investment?’”
Having those answers for companies and the data to show there is enough water is one of the keys of economic development, Hill said.
For so simple a molecule, water is also at the root of many national and international conflicts.
“You’ve got urban vs. rural, upstream vs. downstream, development vs. conservation, coastal vs. inland, fisheries vs. ranchers, swimming pools and golf courses vs. xeriscapes and low-flushing plumbing,” said U.S. Rep. Dina Titus. “It’s extremely politically divisive.”
Most recently, water has taken center stage in Flint, Mich., where it was discovered that toxic water has been flowing from residents’ taps. Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, called the situation “inexcusable.”
“It is an incredible blemish on the reputation this country has enjoyed around the world of being one of the most reliable and progressive countries in the world of water resource management,” Mulroy said.
The only way to create successful water policy is through strong collaborations and partnerships with state and local governments, said Interior Department Deputy Secretary Michael Connor.
“The federal government recognizing the limits of its authority and the need to create these partnerships is not unique to water,” Connor said.
Experts also say that water security is crucial to international harmony, going so far as to consider it a national security issue. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, pointed to how an attack on a desalination plant in the Middle East could throw the region into turmoil.
“With missile attacks or special forces raids, we think about oil and oil infrastructure or gas tankers,” O’Hanlon said. “But it’s not impossible to imagine the Saudis or Emirates having their basic water source threatened by an attack.”
Discussions about water will continue next week at a water summit on Feb. 3 at UNLV, hosted by the Las Vegas chapter of the Jewish National Fund.