If construction began today, it could cost as much as $3.5 billion to build a network of pipelines from eastern Nevada to thirsty Las Vegas, according to the latest projection by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
That's almost enough money to build a Wynn in Las Vegas and a Wynn in Macau, or keep former Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez under contract through the 2147 season.
It is also $1.5 billion higher than the cost projection the water authority has been using since 2005, though authority officials said the larger figure represents an expanded version of the project, not a massive cost increase.
The new estimate is for the largest pipeline the authority would build, a 591-mile behemoth that would deliver as much as 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from wells across rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
The more conservative, $2 billion estimate that was developed two years ago contemplated a pipeline network covering 421 miles and sized to deliver 125,000 acre-feet of water per year.
"I think we're going to build a project that's between the two," said Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of the water authority.
One acre-foot of water is roughly the amount used each year at two Las Vegas homes.
The authority will deliver its new cost estimate today to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which requested the figure as part of its environmental review of the pipeline project.
If the review wraps up as expected in August 2009, construction of the pipeline could get under way that fall, Brothers said.
Officials have yet to decide how to pay for the pipeline project.
At present, the water authority funds large capital projects using connection charges paid as new homes and businesses hook up to the valley's water system, sales tax revenue, water rates and reliability surcharges paid by customers.
Pending state and federal approval, the pipeline project is slated to go online by 2015, though groundwater from the areas closest to Las Vegas could arrive as early as 2012.
Brothers said it's difficult to know what might happen to the cost and scope of the project between now and then. "It could go up as things get more expensive. It could come down if we don't get as much water."
Even $3.5 billion seems wildly optimistic to some pipeline opponents.
"This is clearly a low-ball estimate," said Bob Fulkerson, executive director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "I'm really suspicious of how they calculate their numbers. I think they're throwing darts at a board."
Fulkerson said the authority would be better served by investing the public's money in programs designed to reduce the demand for water in Las Vegas. "Conservation is a proven source," he said. "The pipeline is a major gamble as to whether that water is even there."
But Brothers said the real gamble is for Southern Nevada to continue to rely on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its water supply.
"You can't afford not to do it," she said of building the pipeline. "There isn't another source to use."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or (702) 383-0350.