11.2 Drought, Growth, and Climate Adaptation: A Case Study of Water Management in Las Vegas

Thursday, 26 January 2017: 10:45 AM
613 (Washington State Convention Center )
Sage Lincoln, NOAA, Pittsburgh, PA; and L. Dilling and A. J. Ray

The combination of climate change, growth, and drought has put severe pressure on water supplies across the American West, forcing states and municipalities to adapt to water scarcity. This case study of the Las Vegas Valley and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), analyzes the recent history of water management in the region to understand how adaptation to drought and growth has positioned the Las Vegas metropolitan area to adapt to climate change.  We conducted interviews, reviewed documents and produced thematic memos to build an understanding of how SNWA has faced climate variability and change in the past and present. We also applied three vulnerability-based frameworks from the literature to one of SNWA’s proposed projects, an ongoing $15.5 billion groundwater development project, to understand how these frameworks fared in describing the adaptive potential of a real-world decision. 

We identified three periods of management history: a growth-centric planning period lasting until 2002, a drought-centric planning period lasting from  /adaptation to drought and growth has made them better situated to respond to the impacts of climate change, such adaptations have also created new and often unexpected vulnerabilities. Such new vulnerabilities include decreasing water quality throughout the system, decreased maintenance of existing infrastructure, a revenue and debt crisis, issues regarding the cultural perception of water and regional water consumption in a city known for its excesses, and the risk of shifting vulnerabilities to rural populations.

To better understand predicting vulnerabilities we applied the three frameworks to SNWA’s groundwater development project to test their use in evaluating a specific case for risk of maladaptation. We found that they could indeed allow us to identify and characterize various impacts and vulnerabilities. However, we found the frameworks’ dichotomous classification of maladaptation and adaptation to be too simplistic for weighing tradeoffs among pros and cons of different aspects of the groundwater project. For example, while the project would make citizens of Las Vegas more water secure it could put rural water access and livelihoods at risk. The frameworks are also limited because they do not explore shifting vulnerabilities. This case study indicates a need to assess the more nuanced combination of tradeoffs and shifting vulnerabilities versus simplistic categorization. More work is needed to develop analytic tools to assess risks of maladaptation as part of the decision process before projects are implemented.

 This project was funded by the NOAA-SARP-funded research project Interactions of Drought and Climate Adaptation for Urban Water and included collaboration with water managers in several cities.

1Barnett J, O’Neill S. Maladaptation. Glob Environ Change 2010, 20:211-213.

2Hallegatte, Stephane. Strategies to adapt to an uncertain climate change. Glob Environ Change 2009, 19:240-247.

3Magnan A. Avoiding maladaptation to climate change: toward guiding principles. SAPIENS 2014, 7, Online.

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