Las Vegas means the meadows. The abundance of ground water drew people to settle here more than a hundred years ago. But in 1991 Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told the LA Times that Las Vegas would run out of water as soon as 2006. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports on the agencies efforts this week to look at specific proposals to access more water.
PLASKON: The ground below the Las Vegas Valley was once so saturated, water perpetually spouted from the ground near Valley View and Charleston Avenues creating a rare phenomenon: Artesian wells. But as a result of furious groundwater pumping in the valley over the past 60 years, all that remains there today are piles of sand and dusty redwood well towers and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. It produced this educational video on groundwater in 1997.
PLASKON: A year later the agency started sucking water out of Lake Mead, treating it to drinking water standards and then permanently pumping it into the ground, with no plans to retrieve it. This is still done today and consumes up to 10 percent of Las Vegas' allocation of Lake Mead water.
VIDEO: "The Valley has the largest re-injection program in the world."
PLASKON: While the SNWA says injecting Lake Mead water into the ground is voluntary, the agency video makes clear it is to counter act the devastating effects of over pumping that caused the aquifer to collapse and parts of Las Vegas to sink.
HAITT: We have pumped out a lot more water. Even today we are pumping out about twice as much water as is being re-charged. It means some bad things. Houses have fallen apart in some areas.
PLASKON: That's John Hiatt. Today he sits on the SNWA's community Integrated Water Planning Advisory Committee. With Las Vegas over using groundwater and Colorado River, the committee is charged with recommending methods to find water somewhere else. They met this week.
PLASKON: The goal is to nearly double Las Vega's water supply. They started to whittle down 18 options provided by the SNWA. There was no voting, just consensus agreement. They agreed that trying to store water in the ground below Las Vegas is a good idea, also try to revive old water rights, and pipe water out of the Virgin and Muddy Rivers at a cost of 55 million dollars. But the plan that would go the furthest toward doubling Las Vegas' water supply is trying to pipe millions of gallons of water out of the ground in rural counties at a cost of 2 billion dollars. Some members complained about not having the scientific data to evaluate the feasibility of such a plan. Scientific data will come from the USGS. Dan Bright is a USGS hydrologist in Southern Nevada and says Las Vegans need to learn from the lessons learned with Las Vegas groundwater pumping before moving forward with the plan.
BRIGHT: You know the USGS can get you the basic numbers but what society is willing to give up in terms of impacts on springs and natural discharge areas, it is a societal decision. Trying to find a balance to support growth and protecting what is important to society.
PLASKON: Trying to find the societal balance between growth and environment is part of the charge of the 29 members of this committee who represent gaming, unions, taxpayers association, senior citizens, small businesses, environmental groups and rural counties. 40-year resident of Las Vegas Ann Hoskin thinks the committee is doing a good job.
HOSKIN: Yes, I do. One of the things that I didn't understand is that this is such an immense problem than I had anticipated in how to get the water and where to get the water.
PLASKON: One idea the committee considered that wouldn't involve ground water is desalinization plants, factories that make drinking water from salt water. Building plants in California for that state and in exchange Las Vegas could use California's Colorado River water. But the committee turned down that idea. That disappoints CCSN Professor Mark Bird.
BIRD: I don't know if they have the technical expertise in analyzing these alternatives to come up with recommendations. You know, they meet in the SNWA office, they get SNWA refreshments is there a little biased there?
PLASKON: Bird is a former planner for the US Department of the Interior and author of more than 30 water-related publications. At the meeting, he presented the committee with a list of alternatives to groundwater pumping being used around the world from floating bubbles of water to thirsty populations, cloud seeding, international cooperation, altering western water law and desalinization plants.
DAVIS: The whole desal thing is a nice idea but we are a long way away,"
PLASKON: JC Davis of the SNWA says the committee opposed immediate pursuit of desalinization because it would take too long to develop. It would take at least 4 desalinization plants to get as much water as the SNWA hopes to get in northern Nevada, but it would cost less for water from desalinization compared to piping it from Northern Nevada according to the agencies own estimates published at the meeting. But Davis says there are other reasons to not pursue desalinization, like the concentrated saltwater waste they produce called brine.
DAVIS: The whole issue with desal is that you have got energy production in order to operate the desal plant. And in California they are not all that keen on creating power plants on the beach, there is also brine disposal. You are going to create tons and tons of high salinity brine and you have to put that somewhere, and they haven't quite overcome those issues yet.
HURD: Getting the power to the plant isn't a challenge. Its no different than providing power to an industrial site.
PLASKON: Ken Hurd is the Engineering and Projects manager for the Tampa Bay seawater desalinization plant. Tampa Bay located the desalinization plant next to an existing power plant. Hurd says the power plant is actually part of the solution to brine.
HURD: The reason is that we can use their cooling water to dilute the concentrated sea water that is left over after the cooling process.
PLASKON: Florida came to this solution after spending more than 10 million dollars trying to do what Las Vegas is pursuing, groundwater sources.
HURD: Lawsuits with the water management district, the member governments, it was a real mess. It got to the point of the agency becoming dysfunctional. The negative connotation of ground water pumping.
PLASKON: He knows old ground water development projects like those in Las Vegas and Tampa bay have devastated the ecosystems, but he believes new groundwater development projects can be done safely because public agencies understand the value of wetland resources. Now the value of the resources is a question for Nevadans. Members of the Integrated Planning Advisory committee are in northern Nevada today and tomorrow presenting plans to pump the northern ground water, listening to residents, some of whom say they are gearing up to sue if SNWA goes through with the plan.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR
The next public meeting of the Integrated Water Planning Advisory Committee in Las Vegas will be April 25th.