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Las Vegas weighs tying growth to conservation amid drought

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 significant 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.

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