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Shhh, the water district is listening for leaks

It’s one of the community’s oldest and most important water lines, so the Las Vegas Valley Water District wants to keep a close eye on it.

Well, not an eye exactly. More like a fancy new set of electronic ears.

Under a partnership with the Desert Research Institute’s Nevada Center for Excellence, the water district is testing a new leak detection system that listens for signs of trouble along the 30-inch-diameter pipe beneath Las Vegas Boulevard that serves the Strip resorts from Harmon Avenue south.

Built in 1963, the water line is “some of the oldest infrastructure we have,” said district spokesman Bronson Mack, “and we know the critical role that pipeline plays in keeping the Strip wet.”

The new $150,000 network of sensors was developed and installed by a Canadian company called Echologics. It is designed to provide real-time monitoring of water pipelines and send alerts when leaks are detected. It will also help technicians pinpoint the location of small leaks before they grow and “daylight” — sometimes in the form of sinkholes large enough to swallow large sections of street and sidewalk, resulting in damage and closures in the worst possible place for a community dependent on tourism.

“Most leaks start off very small — a pinhole or slight crack in the pipeline,” Mack said. “This system will notify of those small leaks before they become more severe. This allows us to schedule and coordinate the repairs before an emergency situation occurs.”

He said the water district used similar “listening” technology about three years ago to find and fix a small leak in large distribution line that might otherwise have required them to close and dig up a section of the 215 Beltway.

The new system, now being calibrated, combines the same ability to locate leaks with a cellular communication system to allow constant monitoring and instant alerts.

“It’s the first installation of its kind in the country,” said Nate Allen, executive director of the Center of Excellence.

The nonprofit, public-private center was launched in 2013 in hopes of luring water-related industries and jobs using the state’s resources expertise. That includes everything from job training programs at the College of Southern Nevada and elsewhere to water-related research being conducted at home and around the globe by UNLV, UNR, the Desert Research Institute and the Southern Nevada Water Authority at its state-of-the-art water quality laboratory in Henderson.

Allen said the arrangement between Echologics and the Las Vegas Valley Water District is an example of how the Center of Excellence hopes to “make it easy for technology companies to develop and test new technologies” and “make Nevada an attractive place for water innovation and development.”

Mack said it’s hard to know how much water the early warning system might save, but the 3-mile pipe in Las Vegas Boulevard carries about 7.5 million gallons of water per day.

Roughly 5 percent of all the water the district delivers is lost to leaks across the Las Vegas Valley. That’s well below the national average of about 15 percent, thanks in large part to a comparatively new water system largely built over the past 30 years as the community quadrupled in size.

The line under Las Vegas Boulevard is practically ancient by those standards, but Mack said it hasn’t experienced any major leaks or failures.

“However, based on a variety of condition assessments, there are portions of the pipeline where additional monitoring makes sense,” he said.

If the new monitoring system performs as promised, the district could expand its use to other critical water lines in the valley, Mack said.

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