With an average of less than 10 inches of rainfall each year, Nevada is the nation’s driest state. More than any other state, Nevadans depend critically on the Colorado River for fresh water. Arizona and California also use water from the River, but those states have other water resources available as well. Arizona has significant groundwater reserves. California receives significant rain and snowfall (but has resisted calls to build reservoirs capable of capturing and storing this water, instead allowing it to run into the Pacific Ocean).
The current annual water allotments among California, Arizona, and Nevada (the Lower Basin States) were established in 1928 as part of the Boulder Canyon Project. Of the river water allocated to the Lower Colorado River Basin, California gets 59%, Arizona gets 37%, and Nevada only gets 4%.
In 1928, however, when this allocation was made, only 89,000 people lived in the entire state of Nevada. Nevada’s population has increased by 3500% since then. California’s population has only increased about 700%, and Arizona’s by about 1600%. Nevada’s water needs have grown much faster than the other two Lower Basin States. Put another way, Nevada’s population is about 43% of Arizona’s but Nevadans only get 10% of the water Arizona receives! In addition, California’s population is actually declining, whereas Nevada’s is rapidly increasing.
California’s dams are in a terrible state of disrepair and neglect. Two-thirds of California’s dams are at least 50 years old. Most dams were designed based on outdated assumptions about hydrology and earthquakes. More than 90 California dams need major upgrades to better handle large floods or withstand earthquakes. The Oroville Dam Crisis of 2017 resulted from this neglect. During that crisis, nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Fortunately, the worst-case catastrophic dam failure did not result, but had it, the human toll could have been horrifying.
California is in desperate need of dam repair and the construction of new dams. The recent Infrastructure Bill does not provide nearly enough funding for this critical infrastructure, especially compared to the tens of billions allocated to roads, rails and high-speed internet. Congress should send a bill to the President that would modernize and repair the aging dams around the country, as well as building new dams in California. At the same time, the bill should provide for a reallocation of the water among California, Arizona and Nevada. As California’s dams are repaired and new ones built, Nevada should ultimately get its share based on population, or about 7% of the Lower Basin allocation.