The future, as baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic (hopefully) wanes, local governments and business interests are making plans and setting policies that will plot the course of Northern Nevada’s growth and development for the next half-century and beyond. Plans and projects are being announced at a dizzying pace, and the public often learns about decisions after they are final. The community will live with the consequences of those choices long after individual policy makers have left office.
In the high desert, two natural features limit urban growth: water and land. Northwestern Nevada—unlike most of the arid West, including Clark County—has enough water resources to meet its needs until the end of the century, development advocates say. Major parcels of buildable private land, though, will be exhausted in about five years—a situation that has economic-development proponents lobbying for transfers of large tracts of public lands into private hands.
Skyrocketing housing prices, meanwhile, have forced low- and middle-income residents out of the housing market. The median price of a single-family home in Reno hit $625,000 in April, and the average monthly rent for a Reno apartment is now about $1,600. Washoe County is predicted to grow from an estimated population of 493,000 this year to 620,000 people by 2030, according to the regional Consensus Forecast.
Some folks predict a prosperous future for the Truckee Meadows, where residents have high-paying jobs, and our quality of life is maintained. Others warn that choices made for short-term economic gains will create a sprawling city and county where only the wealthy can afford to live, and community needs will outpace available resources and infrastructure.
The region’s future quality of life hinges on predictions made, and policies crafted—and planning that is happening right now.
Utopia vs. Dystopia?
Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, predicts a future that is much brighter than the present. EDAWN brings businesses to the area and, according to its mission statement, works to retain those companies, promote workforce development, and maintain and improve the area’s quality of life.
The region, Kazmierski said, must grow at a steady pace or die. Residents who want to put the brakes on development should be careful what they wish for: “Ten years ago, people lost their jobs, lost their houses, and their kids couldn’t live here, because they couldn’t find jobs,” he said. “That’s a world with no growth.”
EDAWN brings in companies that pay an average of $25 an hour—jobs that “will still be here in 10 years,” Kazmierski said. The Brookings Institute, he noted, predicts that 40% of the nation’s current jobs will disappear in a decade, with workers replaced by automation and self-service systems.
“We’re bringing in the next generation of jobs,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll suffer the same fate as 10 years ago, when gaming and tourism took a hit, and there was nothing to replace them.”
Kazmierski noted that companies that recently relocated to Northern Nevada are paying an average wage of $60,000 per year, and 90% of those jobs were filled by people who were already living in the area.
“Our kids don’t have to move out of town to find a good job now,” he said.
Salaries for jobs that can’t be automated also are increasing. Hotels “can’t find a housekeeper for less than $20 an hour,” he said.
“Unless the economy is dead, and people are losing their houses, any community that’s viable and is a place where you want to live has that (affordable housing) problem,” Kazmierski said. “It’s not a Reno problem; it’s a national problem.”
Although $20 is more than double Nevada’s current minimum wage of $9.75 per hour, it’s still not enough to afford an apartment in Reno, and that dilemma isn’t limited to service workers. A recent report on housing costs in the Truckee Meadows, where 54% of residents are renters, uses a formula of 30% of gross income to estimate affordable housing costs, which include utilities. That means a teacher who makes just under $54,000 per year would be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment renting for $1,348 per month. Someone making $68,000 per year, such as a police patrol officer, could afford a monthly housing cost of $1,700.
Under the 30% formula, workers getting paid $35,000 per year should be paying $875 per month for housing—in a town where the average rent for a one-bedroom is $1,200 (or more, depending on the source) and rising. Critics of rapid growth see a grim future, with the gap between the haves and have-nots continuing to widen.
“Look at what’s happened to Lake Tahoe, which is an enclave of the wealthy—a private club,” said Toni Harsh, a former Reno City Council member who also served on the Regional Planning Commission. “Is that what our valley will become? Where will the teachers live? The dental assistants, receptionists, office managers and store clerks? Who will work in the restaurants? Where do people who used to be thought of as middle class live when all rents are beyond their reach?”
Kazmierski agrees that teachers—and many other skilled and highly-educated workers—are underpaid, and that housing starts have been lagging far behind demand, but those are national trends.
“We’re building a fraction of the houses we built 10 years ago, and that’s the same all over the country,” he said. “… The average person can’t afford a single-family home anymore, even with two incomes. We have moved away from what was the norm.”
More than 85% of Nevada’s land is federally managed, and most of it is open for public use. The Truckee Meadows is an urban island in a sagebrush sea, bordering on public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. A study commissioned by EDAWN and released in December concluded that “Northern Nevada developers, especially residential, will face challenges in finding desirable parcels to accommodate projects by 2027 if nothing is done to expand regional access to lands.”
A U.S. House bill introduced in 2015 proposed an initial transfer of 7.3 million acres of BLM land to the state, half of which is located along the Interstate 80 corridor between Sparks and Wendover. That proposal met fierce opposition from environmental groups, conservationists, progressives and others. It died when that legislative session adjourned. The latest incarnation of that land-transfer bill, the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act, is expected to be introduced in Congress this year.
“We have to grow, but we cannot grow in an unrestrained way. We need living wages and have to be smart about water use,” Kazmierski said. “The community failed to keep up with housing demand, and that’s a national problem. It’s pinching out the average people from the housing market almost anywhere in our country other than the communities where the industries are dying.”
Kazmierski said converting chunks of federal land into private parcels is essential for the area’s continued growth. That will prevent urban sprawl, he said, because new developments would rise on land adjoining the Truckee Meadows, and not on distant parcels near Fernley or Silver Springs. A website promoting the bill (www.landsbill.org) stresses sections of the proposal that would convert some of the BLM land into Wilderness Study Areas and mentions the development of parks, trails and other amenities. Some opponents of the measure categorize the hype about preserving public lands as “greenwashing,” a tactic to divert attention from a plan to put millions of publicly owned acres into private hands.
Bob Fulkerson, founder of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the group’s former director, said the lands bill is all about urban sprawl and maximizing profits for development interests.
“The same folks who tell us not to worry about our water supply are also waving the pompoms for the lands bill,” he said. The proposal would result in more tax-subsidized deals like the one that brought Tesla to Storey County, he said, and helped drive the area’s record-high rent increases.
“I shudder to think about where this is going,” Fulkerson said. “The changes I have seen related to the diminishing natural beauty and abundance in my region in my brief time breaks my heart. … We need more courage and (media) coverage if we’re going to change the narrative and give our grandkids a fighting chance at a livable Northern Nevada.”
Rose Strickland of Reno, a longtime Nevada conservationist and public-lands supporter, said the land-swap proposal is a re-hash of the 2015 bill. That measure, she said, died because of widespread opposition by “just everybody in the community except the developers and a few politicians.” That bill, she said, was seen as something that would “further destroy our quality of life” in the Truckee Meadows.
“Nothing much has changed in the 2022 version that I can see,” she said.
Strickland noted that a map prepared by EDAWN of the area within the proposed “disposal boundary” closest to Reno indicates the metro area’s footprint could be expanded into the hills east of Sparks. “So, it looks like at least some of the supporters of this bill want all of the public lands to be put on the chopping block within this ‘growth’ boundary,” she said in an email to the RN&R. “That’s what Clark County called all of their six or seven growth rings. So I wonder if this is just the first growth ring to be proposed around the Truckee Meadows.”
If the lands bill passes and frees up more large parcels for residential, commercial and industrial development, planners say there will be plenty of water rights available to support that new growth. That’s because the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the area’s water utility, has acquired additional water rights and added upstream storage capacity; customers adopting effective conservation measures have also played a large part. The Reno-Sparks metro area currently uses around 83,000 acre-feet of water a year, about the same amount as 20 years ago, even though the area’s population has increased by nearly 50% since 2000. The utility now has about 140,000 acre feet of water available annually.
In order to get their projects approved by local governments, developers and businesses must prove they own enough water rights to supply their needs.
Enough Water ‘for 80 Years’
Even though the West is experiencing its worst drought conditions since a long arid cycle 1,200 years ago, some officials predict Northern Nevada has a sustainable water supply that will fuel development for 80 years. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in February predicted the chances of the Southwest’s current drought persisting through 2030 are 75%, when factoring in the continued impacts of a warming climate.
The Truckee Meadows Water Authority says even when worst-case climate change scenarios are plugged into computer models, Reno-Sparks won’t have any water woes in the decades to come.
John Zimmerman, TMWA’s assistant general manager,noted that new development is required to provide its own water rights. Companies may purchase agricultural water rights and convert them to residential, commercial and industrial use, or buy them from a pool of unassigned rights. Over the years, developers also have come up with various water-importation proposals to tap into more distant water sources.
“We don’t approve where growth happens, or the type of growth that occurs; we’re just tasked with making sure that there is a water supply for future growth,” Zimmerman said.
Predicting how much water may be available in the coming years and decades is an inexact science made even more of a crapshoot by the effects of climate change. Studies indicate that the Sierra Nevada is undergoing a massive change in precipitation patterns.
As the climate warms, more winter moisture is falling as rain instead of snow, and spring snowmelt is occurring earlier. The Reno-Sparks metro area gets 90% of its water from the Truckee River; groundwater accounts for the other 10%. Upstream reservoirs, including Stampede, Boca and Independence, provide storage that can be tapped in drought years.
TMWA looks at climate-change scenarios, historical drought data and computer models to help predict future water availability.
“We look at those and try to predict what future impacts will be going out 20 years or more,” Zimmerman said. “… It shows that up until at least the 2060s, we’re not in a situation where we have a shortage.” However, the climate-change predictions and models change often, Zimmerman noted, and “constantly seem to worsen. It’s a constant analysis for us to make sure that we will have water resources to meet future demand.”
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said predictions rarely reflect what actually happens. The area’s population is growing a lot faster than various studies anticipated, and the weather patterns in the Sierra Nevada are delicate and volatile.
“More people means more demand for water,” he said. “What are the limits? Do we want to get there, and what will we do when we get there?”
The major shift in the area’s climate pattern translates into shorter wet months and more precipitation in what used to be dry months, including lots of rain in a short period of time, creating “flash runoff.” The change in weather patterns affects not only the urban water supply, but also has implications for flood control and environmental conditions downstream.
“What does that mean for Pyramid Lake, the fish, endangered species, the Lahontan Reservoir?” Roerink asked. “We don’t see officials talking about that.”
While developers have to purchase water rights and pay impact fees for their projects, critics complain that communities always struggle to keep up with the overall effects of rapid growth.
“You keep hearing that growth pays for itself,” Roerink said. “That was the premise in Las Vegas, and that’s not what happened. … How can we honestly expect that to happen up here?”
He noted that growth puts pressure on roads, utilities, telecommunications, fire, police and social services: “We expand the need for government, and ultimately, the costs will fall on the ratepayers and taxpayers. Look at the public education system. That’s a pretty good example of growth not paying for itself.”
Predictions are easy on paper, Roerink said, but reality always looks different. Water is a finite resource, and “there is no such thing as ‘new’ water. Use it here, and you’ll diminish it somewhere else. There is no such thing as unused water in this day and age.”
Fulkerson said proponents of constant growth have to keep touting the region’s comparative abundance of water to counter the constant news about the drought.
“They don’t want to put any fear in the minds of the investor class,” Fulkerson said.
He agreed with Roerink that “we have plenty of water on paper,” and although computer models and studies indicate that the availability of the resource will keep pace with growth projections, there are no guarantees. In the meantime, he said, developers may be “ripping off the future for the sake of short-term gains”—and everyone else will pay the price.
Critics Misinformed, EDAWN Says
Kazmierski said critics of development either don’t understand what EDAWN does, or don’t care about positioning the region for a prosperous future in a rapidly changing nation. The area is blessed with water resources, he said, but no one should be complacent about that.
“We do have adequate resources to meet our water need through the end of the century, (but) we will be a lot more efficient in the way we use water. When we do that, we will still have the water supplies to be vibrant community,” he said.
Kazmierski noted that EDAWN “will not support or engage with companies that are high water users. We don’t need you; go somewhere else.”
Transferring public land to private development is essential for the area to grow, Kazmierski said, because “rather than sprawling out to distant communities, we have to acquire some land near the metro area, and not out in Timbuktu, to accommodate what we see as normal growth.”
EDAWN, he said, is focused on the long-term quality of life in Northern Nevada and not just on short-term profits. The tax breaks that attract companies to the region aren’t “corporate welfare,” he said. Incentives like the 10-year abatement of the tax on manufacturing equipment granted to Tesla make the difference between a company coming to Nevada or putting down stakes somewhere else.
“It’s not a corporate giveaway,” Kazmierski said. “If we tax their equipment, they will go to Texas or somewhere else. We’re looking at a more long-term view.”
Complaining that EDAWN is focused on short-term goals is “a very uninformed position,” he said. “… Only 20% of what EDAWN does is attracting companies, and 80% is retention, helping those companies.” About 20% of the organization’s staff is focused on workforce and community development, he said.
He said the area needs more “housing in the middle,” including quality rentals, townhouses and condos, but people pushing back on growth are “slowing down the creation of housing.” EDAWN, he said, is focused in five main issues: housing; workforce development and training; adequate educational funding including better pay for teachers; childcare services; and securing more land for residential and commercial development.
“We’re boxed in right now,” Kazmierski said. “There is virtually no land available in the metro area. If we don’t have more, we’ll have sprawl with people living further away, increasing traffic, pollution and other things we don’t want.” Building on what is now public land east of Sparks, for example, will allow for continued growth but avoid the negative consequences of urban sprawl, he said.
Harsh, the former Reno City Council member, still participates in public hearings and stakeholders’ groups when development plans come before local officials.
“Local governments need to have an open discussion with their citizens, and that’s not happening now,” she said. “Political campaigns are the perfect time to ask questions about what constitutes smart growth, and what do we want our city to become? How much growth is too much? … Reno loves a quick fix, but there’s a bigger picture. What do we want this valley to look like in 50 years?”
She said expanding the metro area’s footprint onto what is now public land also is an example of urban sprawl. She encouraged residents to pay attention to development issues—not only in their own neighborhoods, but across the Truckee Meadows.
“Ask the hard questions. What kind of city do we want in 20, 30, 50 years? Do we want a community of extremes, have and have-nots?” Harsh asked. “Or do we want a place that has diversity—of races, ages, jobs and income levels?
“The time to think about those things is now, while decisions are being made, and not after they are locked in. Then it’s too late.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This coverage was made possible by our readers’ generous donations to the RN&R’s Independent Journalism Fund, which is administered by the non-profit Tides Foundation.