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Urban Growth: Truckee River, Nevada

Water water everywhere. But here's a splash of reality: balancing finite water supplies in the west with on-going growth is really more a gamble than sure science.

Emily Braswell: "There's only so much Truckee River Water. And according to the water board people over the next 20 years we'll be hitting the limit there."
View Braswell Interview

Lori Williams: "In all of the western states it is a critical resource, critical to development and critical to life."

Emily Braswell: "It's not that you can't get it . . . just how much is it going to cost?"

Bob Jones: "There's an old saying -- water follows money and reality is that people will pay to have it delivered to their homes."
View Jones interview

Lori Williams: "Everybody wants it, everybody needs it, people go to war over it!"

And the supply we have is being spread thin, as the sheer number of homes demanding it is sky-rocketing. Twenty-thousand new homes slated on line in south Reno over the next decade; new development to the north on hold with ground water supplies tapped out; groundwater quality questions to the east; yet construction continues.

Building is booming in the west, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. That has a lot of people worried about water. Northern Nevada depends on the Truckee River as a main source of water with groundwater basins as necessary backup. But with underground water supplies scientifically uncertain, the state engineer has already capped pumping of the aquifers at 48-thousand acre feet a year.

Lori Williams: "We're okay with that cap . . . we know that if we take more than 48,ooo acre feet annually we'd be mining water…taking more than can possibly naturally recharge."
View Williams interview

And taken to extremes, water-mining could leave the west high and dry, literally. Of course, Nevada's notoriety as the fastest growing state in the country is basically fueled by unbridled building in Las Vegas.

Bob Jones: "Of all the communities that should conceivably have a water problem due to development you'd think it should be Las Vegas."

With no local water to tap, Las Vegas depends heavily on water from the Colorado River. It's a very expensive option. But like so many big urban areas those who live there are willing to pay whatever it takes to continue the flow.

Even though the situation to the north is nowhere near as extreme it's just as critical.

Water in the west is as good as gold. The latest estimate is that there are twenty to forty thousand acre feet of water rights still unallocated on the Truckee River. And they are the focus of daily bargaining in an open water rights market.

Since developers need to secure water rights for every development you see spring up, before they can be built, there is a constant vigil over who's willing to sell how many for how much.

Lori Williams: "A couple thousand a year has been the demand for the past 10 years.

Basically when I have someone who needs or wants to sell water rights I get on the phone and call Jack Robb -- and it's sad that I know his number by heart."

"Jack I have someone who needs 2 hundred in the next few weeks for his development"

And Jack knows the number of most of the potential sellers by heart.

Jack Robb: "Like we talked about you can keep 2 for development and I'll buy the rest at 32-an acre foot. Great . . . thanks . . . bye."
View Robb interview

Such deal-making keeps Jack Robb and 3 other TMWA employees very busy. TUMWA banks a few hundred at a time and has constant turnover with developers. While no one will talk about the competition they all openly admit that, over time, supply and demand could easily send the prices into an unending upward spiral. But securing rights on paper doesn't guarantee water in your pipes.

Emily Braswell: "You can have rights for water, but depending on the drought situation there may not be any. And it's not there, it's just not there."

In the planning business they call that hitting the wall, and it's something they expect to see happen more often as development continues.

Bob Firth: "When we get to the end of the local water we have to look at more conservation and at importation. And that has historically been too expensive and has political problems."
View Firth interview

Scientists like John Tracy with the Desert Research Institute are trying to track the drop in the actual water table. And they are looking worldwide to all kinds of alternatives that may someday prove financially feasible. He says rather than limit growth, urban centers increase efficiencies and import water.

And while it sounds futuristic, de-salinating sea water may be where we're headed.

John Tracy: "Now imagine if Los Angeles and San Diego were to run desalination plants, and Vegas could buy into that. Then the question would be -- to what lengths do we compromise the environment to allow for that growth?"
View Tracy interview

Developers continue to see more potential with existing water supplies than most.

Bob Jones: "Only 6% of the water you see in that river is used here to run the economic engine of Northern Nevada . . . only 6%! We could make a deal and use it."

Jones sees potential in leasing rights from downstream users and in looking at a re-allocation of the river systems altogether. We may not reach the limits on water for another 20 years. But it's clear that the planning for that day needs to start now.

  View the whole video segment:
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