Trains don't roll through Caliente like they used to, but the sleepy little city in Lincoln County could receive an economic jolt from a project that has proven controversial elsewhere in rural Nevada.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is considering Caliente as a manufacturing hub for the massive pipeline network the agency plans to build across the eastern part of the state.
The project, expected to cost well over $2 billion, will extend some 250 miles to tap groundwater and pump it to Las Vegas from as far north as Great Basin National Park. Construction could get under way in 2010.
To support the work, authority officials are considering 13 parcels of land in the Caliente area to house a pipe fabrication facility.
City Councilman Tom Acklin said the railroad town of about 1,200 people would welcome the new industry, despite misgivings about the water authority's overall plan.
"Sure, it would be a boon for us," Acklin said. "It would mean jobs. It would mean additional revenue in the form of property taxes. It would be nothing but beneficial."
Lincoln County dropped its official opposition to the pipeline project in 2003, when county commissioners signed a water-sharing agreement with the authority.
The pact spells out which groundwater basins each entity will be allowed to develop in the rural county about 50 miles north of Las Vegas. It also clears the way for Lincoln County to share in the use, and the cost, of the pipelines the authority plans to build there.
Acklin said the commissioners who signed the agreement have since been voted out of office or left on their own. Most county residents oppose the pipeline project, he said, but not enough to turn down an economic opportunity like the pipe fabrication facility.
"When the water table starts dropping, it might be a different story," he said.
For now, though, people in Caliente seem resigned to the project and hope to get something in return, Acklin said.
"It's David and Goliath, and David doesn't have that many little rocks left," he said.
"If it's going to happen, why shouldn't the communities (that could be impacted) reap the benefits?"
Lincoln County's official position on the pipeline stands in stark contrast to its neighbor to the north. White Pine County repeatedly has refused to enter a similar water-sharing deal with the authority.
In 2005, the cash-strapped White Pine County School District was set to buy two used vehicles from the water authority for a dollar each, but school board members nixed the deal because of objections to the pipeline project.
The largest share of water for the authority's pipeline is expected to come from Spring Valley, a 1 million-acre watershed in White Pine County.
The project, which has drawn staunch opposition from ranchers and environmentalists, still requires the approval of Nevada's chief water regulator. On Feb. 4, State Engineer Tracy Taylor will convene a hearing on the authority's applications for pumping rights in three Lincoln County watersheds.
A federal environmental review also is pending.
Gina Neilson is a project engineering manager for the water authority. She said Caliente fills the bill for a pipe fabrication facility because it is near the project's midway point and has ready railway access, two factors that could significantly reduce transportation costs.
The pipe factory will be a busy place wherever it is built. Neilson said preliminary plans call for more than 200 miles of welded steel pipe up to 84 inches in diameter, or roughly the height of NBA star Tim Duncan. The pipes would be formed at the factory out of plates of steel shipped in from another location.
Neilson said the authority probably will need the fabrication facility through 2015, when water should begin flowing to Las Vegas from the northern end of the network.
Several large water projects in neighboring Utah and Arizona could keep the factory in operation after the authority's pipelines are finished.
An industrial operation that employs 45 to 50 people, even temporarily, could have a major impact on Caliente and the county as a whole.
"You can imagine what that (would do) to our sales tax alone," said Acklin, a retired Las Vegas police detective whose roots in Lincoln County date to the 1860s.
The pipe factory also could give some of Caliente's young people a reason to stay in the community. With few good jobs to be had, Acklin said, "our demographics have changed. The majority of the people are retired."
Right now, the city's single largest employer is the Caliente Youth Center, a state-run correctional camp for juveniles.
Two of the parcels under consideration by the water authority are owned by the city of Caliente. Another belongs to the federal Bureau of Land Management. The rest are in the hands of private cattle operations.
Any land the authority acquires in the Caliente area will be included in the package when bids are sought for pipeline construction.
Neilson said the authority has identified four companies that appear qualified to do the work. Southern Nevada's wholesale water supplier will hold an outreach session for potential bidders next week.
Since the project is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, Neilson said she expects it to draw a lot of interest. That could translate to a more competitive price for the authority.
In the meantime, at least one company hoping for a piece of the project also has set its sights on Caliente.
Houston-based Bredero Shaw, a world leader in the manufacture of pipe coatings, has signed a letter of intent to lease the city's industrial park.
Marketing Manager Scott James said the deal hinges on his company being picked to help build the pipeline network.
Bredero Shaw makes coatings that protect pipes from corrosion and reduce friction to improve efficiency. Their products are used extensively in oil and natural gas pipelines but also have applications for water projects.
"We hope to be involved in the job; but if we're not, I'm sure someone will come in and use that land," Shaw said.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or (702) 383-0350.