For the first time since 2004, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will use its power of eminent domain to take control of property in the path of a water project.
Officials for the valley’s wholesale water supplier say they need two small parcels of undeveloped land along the Las Vegas Wash, west of Lake Las Vegas, to build a low dam called a weir.
Authority board members voted unanimously Thursday to initiate court proceedings to have the two parcels condemned.
The authority has been trying to buy out the owners since 2010, but the two sides cannot agree on a price.
The authority originally offered about $8,000 for the remaining interest in the two parcels, each about the size of a basketball court. That drew a counteroffer from the four part-owners: $500,000 for each parcel.
“That’s an astonishing gap,” water authority board member and Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin said. “I think the court will parse that out pretty quickly if anyone is foolish enough to take it to court.”
The property falls within a span of the Las Vegas Wash where authority officials say a low dam is needed to curb erosion and improve water quality. The Three Kids Weir is expected to cost $16.4 million and take about 14 months to build.
Officials considered other sites, but they said their options were limited by a pair of seismic fault lines and an underground water pipe that serves as one of two main distribution lines serving North Las Vegas.
Greg Walch, general counsel for the authority, said the agency needs to the start the project soon because roughly
70 percent of the funding is coming from a federal grant that is due to expire in October 2014.
In 2010, the water authority bought a 75 percent stake in the two parcels. Clark County assessor’s office records show the remaining 25 percent is held by two individuals, a family trust and the estate of a dead man.
None of the owners could be reached for comment.
Authority officials said the property would be almost impossible to build a house on. It is in “a vacant, unimproved area, subject to flooding,” Walch said.
Coffin predicted that without the new weir, the land would be “washed away in time.”
The authority’s offer for the land was based on a 2010 appraisal Walch now describes as “aggressive” and possibly skewed by “pre-crash” property values.
A second appraisal last year valued each parcel at just $1,800, but authority officials decided to stick with their initial offer in hopes of completing the sale out of court.
The Las Vegas Wash serves as the conduit for treated wastewater from the valley’s sewage plants. It also carries urban runoff and floodwater downstream to Lake Mead.
The wash runs year round, with an average flow of 180 million gallons a day, nearly all of it treated wastewater.
The new weir will replace an aptly named structure called the Temporary Demonstration Weir, which was wiped out by flooding on the wash late last summer. Since then, signs of erosion have appeared upstream from where the old weir once stood. Eventually, that head-cutting, as it is known, could damage the next weir upstream.
So why is the agency in charge of bringing clean water into the valley so concerned about the quality of the water flowing out of the valley?
Davis said the authority wants the wash to be as healthy as possible to protect the community’s “source water,” 90 percent of which comes from Lake Mead.
That is why the authority serves as the lead agency for the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee, a multijurisdictional group that has overseen the construction of more than a dozen weirs and other improvements in the wash since the late 1990s.
Calming and controlling the flow of the wash reduces erosion and allows sediment and nutrients to settle out of the water before they reach Lake Mead.
Condemning the property will enable the authority to start work on the new weir while talks continue on an equitable purchase price, Walch said. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, the value will be determined by the courts.
Spokesman J.C. Davis said the authority has used eminent domain proceedings to secure property 22 times since 1995, though only three of those instances have come since 2000.
In every case, Davis said, the authority ended up reaching a settlement with the property owner before the matter ended up in front of a judge or jury.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.