LAKE MEAD, Nevada — The streaks of white on the rock ringing the nation’s largest reservoir show how far its water levels have dropped since it was last full.
Lake Mead and nearby Lake Powell, which send water to 40 million people in the Southwest, are at their lowest levels since they were filled in the 1930s as part of the Hoover Dam’s construction on the Colorado River.
The lake actually overflowed in 1983 and nearly hit capacity in 1999. Now, it’s at only 26% of its capacity — and losing altitude monthly as a decades-long drought brought on by a changing climate keeps it from replenishing the supply.
Yet in a crucial U.S. Senate campaign primarily being waged a short drive away that could sway control of the chamber, the candidates are barely mentioning the disappearing water levels and the drought that’s causing it.
In part, that’s because residents see adapting to drought conditions as a local issue. In part, it’s because more immediate concerns have risen to the top of many voters’ minds this year in Nevada and across the United States in advance of the midterm elections — most prominently, inflation and abortion rights.
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“Polls show that Americans are concerned about and love the environment,” Steve Blackledge, the conservation program director for the advocacy group Environment America, said in an interview.
“But we live in a time of short news cycles, and come election time, when it’s not prime wildfire or hurricane season, the changing climate can be out of sight, out of mind. It doesn’t make the top three bullet points in a stump speech. Honestly, I wish it were otherwise, but candidates still know the environment matters to voters.”
Colorado River cutbacks
This was the first year the Colorado River system activated its shortage protocol, triggering cutbacks in water delivery, said Noe Santos, the river operations manager for the Colorado River System with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency in charge of water management. In 2023, the system will hit the second level of its three-tier shortage system, forcing further restrictions.
“It’s pretty critical right now,” Santos said. “We’re just going further and further into shortage.”
Locals are quite aware of the diminishing water levels, and water management experts point to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which manages water for the Las Vegas Valley that’s home to 2.2 million Silver Staters, as an example of how to institute conservation measures.
The authority put in place aggressive restrictions on turf, for example, among other measures, Colby Pellegrino, the deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said.
The authority also spent $1.3 billion to build infrastructure to allow water to be pumped from the reservoir even when levels dip below what’s needed to send water downstream to Arizona, California and Mexico, she said.
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Nevada political battle
Party control of the U.S. Senate could come down to the Nevada contest, where Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. Forecasters rate the race as among the closest of the year.
A Republican pickup in any state would likely hand Republicans control of the Senate, which is now evenly split.
But Nevada results could be a particularly strong indicator of the national picture because both candidates are “fairly generic” stand-ins for their parties, Erin Covey, an analyst with Inside Elections, said.
Cortez Masto is not as well known as other vulnerable Senate Democrats such as Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, she said.
The incumbent also faces a potentially stronger challenger than her peers in Laxalt, who successfully united “the Trump and McConnell factions” of the party early in the race, Covey said, referring to former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“So I think that state is going to be a pretty good test of which way things will break for the midterms,” she said.
Laxalt and his allies have focused the race thus far on economic issues and crime, Dan Lee, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said.
In a 10-minute stump speech during an Oct. 24 campaign stop, Laxalt blasted President Joe Biden, whom he blamed for inflation, and Cortez Masto’s ties to the president. He also criticized Democrats’ approach to policing and immigration enforcement.
Cortez Masto and Democrats have highlighted abortion rights and Laxalt’s ties to Trump’s discredited claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Climate and environmental issues, which typically appeal more to the progressive wing of the Democratic electorate, have been downplayed this year compared to the last two national elections as Democrats are in a more defensive position, Lee said.
With Trump in office in 2018, the electoral landscape favored Democrats, and they could pursue more ambitious policies. In 2020, Biden had to win a competitive primary that required cultivating progressive climate voters.
“This election isn’t about Democrats and progressives,” Lee said. “Everything is favoring the Republican Party. So it’s more needing to focus on core issues of the general electorate, rather than pushing more progressive aspects of the Democratic agenda.”
Abortion rights are seen as a more broadly relevant issue than climate, he said.
An Oct. 20 Monmouth University poll that asked voters their issue priorities found that climate change was last out of nine choices, with 23% of respondents saying it was extremely important. Twice as many voters said inflation, the top issue in the survey, was extremely important.
Some — though not all — environmental advocates also sense that their issues are not at the top of voters’ priorities.
Voters see pocketbook issues as more immediate than climate threats, Lee said. The long-term climate effects that have led to less water flowing from the Colorado River into the reservoirs that quench Nevada are not as relevant.
Lee said it’s tough for climate issues to break through.
“People are just trying to pay their bills and just dealing with gas prices and housing prices,” he said. “Voters are somewhat myopic and short-sighted. So, to build this whole argument of, ‘We need to think about the snow melt in Colorado,’ it’s just too convoluted.”
Gas prices and abortion
Focus on issues other than climate was apparent even in proximity to the troubled reservoirs and among voters who care deeply about the environment.
In Boulder City, the nearest municipality to Lake Mead, residents Susan and Ed Laselle went to a Republican event at a local restaurant to see a slate of candidates for local and statewide office, including Laxalt.
Concerned about crime and border issues, they said they wanted to elect conservative candidates to address those problems.
“We need more support for our police,” Ed Laselle said. “I think our country’s going south. We’re in deep trouble. Our neighborhood’s good but some less fortunate folks don’t have the police they need.”
Asked if they were concerned about the water levels in nearby Lake Mead, Ed answered, “Everybody in our city is.”
But it’s not been a focus of the campaigns.
“It’s kind of been off the radar lately,” he said.
“Gas prices are more important,” Susan added.
Gas stations in the Las Vegas area sold regular unleaded gas for around $5 per gallon or slightly higher during the last week of October, up from an average of $3.90 one year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.
Democrats, often the party on the national level more interested in addressing climate issues, are also prioritizing other issues.
Though Democratic voters and candidates have expressed some interest in campaigning on climate, other issues predominate.
Between phone-banking calls, a group of volunteers at the Nevada Democratic Party’s offices listed what made these midterm elections important.
“Save our democracy,” one volunteer said.
Two volunteers said the race for secretary of state, in which Republican candidate Jim Marchant has made Trump’s claims about the 2020 election a key part of his message, was one they were particularly invested in.
“Don’t forget women’s rights,” Tanner Song, another volunteer, responded.
In an interview, Song said the environment is normally her top priority—she drives a small electric vehicle and has a solar system on her home—but her personal history moved her to volunteer after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer that overturned the federal right to an abortion.
Song’s biological mother was raped at the age of 15 and gave birth to Song in 1962, she said.
Song said she herself then endured a “terrible childhood” with an abusive adopted mother.
“That was always my No. 1 cause,” Song said of environmental issues. Abortion rights “was not a huge issue before a year or so ago, so it kind of switched. … I just don’t want this to happen to other girls now.”
Climate still strong for some voters
Andrew Sierra, the political and organizing director for the Nevada Conservation League and Education fund, disagreed that climate has lost salience in the state.
While that may be true nationally, he said, climate was consistently in the top three issues—along with abortion and the economy — mentioned during the group’s canvassing efforts.
“Especially during the summer, there were a lot of more prevalent conversations that pertain to water conservation, for example, and climate issues,” he said. “Because here in Nevada, we definitely feel the summer is getting hotter and longer.”
Geoffrey Henderson, a postdoctoral associate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in North Carolina, said the young climate activists who pushed the issue into the Democratic mainstream most visibly in 2016 are continuing to grow.
“Groups like Zero Hour and NextGen America have been growing and some of them like Sunrise and Next Gen have been playing in elections kind of alongside the more traditional players in the environmental space, like the League of Conservation Voters,” he said. “So that movement is still very, very active.”
The Biden administration and the Democratic Congress’ legislative victories, including the Inflation Reduction Act and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, provided funding for climate action—and gave Democrats a way to campaign on climate, he said.
One congressman keys in on climate
In neighboring Arizona, U.S. Rep Greg Stanton, a Democrat in a reelection race rated as likely Democratic by Inside Elections, is one of a few to highlight those infrastructure investments.
In the campaign’s final days Stanton released an ad touting his votes to pass Democrats’ infrastructure and climate bills, which included major funding boosts for water infrastructure.
In an Oct. 27 phone interview, Stanton said the ad was less about appealing to a particular voting bloc and more aimed at telling his constituents what his priorities were in Congress.
“I watch the ads like you do, so I know what other people are focusing on,” he said. “It’s a disappointment that it hasn’t been a higher priority, for example, in the governor’s race.”
The issue is the most important one to his state, he said. And he would continue to push in Congress to address the crisis.
“I don’t know how many votes it’s going to carry,” he said. “Whether it plays politically or not, I’m just trying to be 100% transparent about what my priorities are.”
Asked if it was concerning that Democrats were not focusing more on climate issues in this year’s campaign, Stanton was direct.
“Yes,” he said.