Meet Dr. Laurel Saito

Nevada Water Program Director

Dr. Laurel Saito—former director of University of Nevada, Reno’s hydrologic sciences graduate program—is leading our new freshwater conservation program. We asked about her work, the challenges we face, and how The Nature Conservancy is helping shape the future of water in Nevada. Here's what she had to say:

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing for The Nature Conservancy?

Dr. Saito:

I started with the Conservancy on September 1 and got right to work developing Nevada's new water program. So far my primary focus has been engaging with the 2017 Nevada Legislative Session about water policy and law issues; their session runs from February through June. I've also been busy assisting with other water-related Nevada programs and projects. And I’m starting to explore how we can best define environmental flows for Nevada ecosystems. In other words, how much water do we really need for nature to thrive? Answering that question is essential in finding a balance with the water people need.

That sounds exciting. Why is now the right time for us to get involved in Nevada water issues?

Dr. Saito:

Since Nevada is the driest state in the nation, our natural systems have adapted over time to cycles of floods and droughts, creating lots of biodiversity and species found nowhere else. Adding people to the incredible Nevada landscape has shifted the availability and use of our limited water resources. The recent drought in Northern Nevada and ongoing drought in the Colorado River Basin have both highlighted the need for changes in water management so that we can sustain people and nature for future generations.

The State has recognized this need, too, with the Governor’s Drought Forum and the Nevada Legislative Subcommittee to Study Water (during the interim session). With potential changes to water law and statewide discussions about these issues, now is the perfect time for the Conservancy to bring its scientific expertise and pragmatic, collaborative approach to the table.

What do you think are the biggest challenges we face with water in Nevada?

Dr. Saito:

Nearly 20% of groundwater basins in Nevada are currently over-appropriated. That means more water rights have been granted than the amount of water available in the basin.

How to bring these basins back into balance is an immense challenge that affects not only water distribution, but the social and economic fabric of many of Nevada’s communities. And that's not all. Pumping of groundwater is affecting surface water availability in many parts of the state. This is a major concern for habitats and wildlife dependent on rivers, streams and springs—and for agriculture. Declining water tables negatively impact plants that are important to productive rangelands.

Nature—and Nevadans—need you. Support projects like our water program today and for future generations>>

And what about our biggest opportunities?

Dr. Saito:

As I’ve traveled around Nevada talking to water managers, I’ve been impressed by the many thoughtful and dedicated people working hard on water issues. There are no easy answers. Finding solutions for the long term will require persistence and a commitment to working together. There appear to be some areas of agreement, especially regarding how groundwater and surface water are connected and need to be managed that way. And no one wants to completely dry up the landscape.

How do you think your career so far will help you be successful at the Conservancy?

Dr. Saito:

This position seems like the perfect evolution of my career. My background is in civil engineering with an emphasis on water resources management, and I worked for 14 years at the University of Nevada, Reno as a professor before coming to the Conservancy. Throughout my career I have been passionate about water, especially when it comes to sustainable management.

Having worked in the public, private and academic sectors previously, I understand how those sectors contribute and play roles in managing water resources. I really appreciate nonprofits like the Conservancy that can fill priority gaps when needed, especially where the other sectors are not as equipped to engage due to time or resource constraints.

What has inspired your personal commitment to protecting nature?

Dr. Saito:

Water is an amazing resource that sustains all living things, so whenever I am in nature, I am aware of how important water is to what I am seeing, hearing, smelling, appreciating and enjoying. Sustainable water management has been a passion of mine since I first started working with water issues in Los Angeles County in the 1980s.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Dr. Saito:

It is an honor to be working with The Nature Conservancy, especially alongside my outstanding and dedicated colleagues in Nevada. I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of this great team and I look forward to what's to come!

You can be a hero for water in Nevada. Support our work today>>

Back to Explore Nevada page>>


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