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Desalination dawdling could leave Southern Nevada high and dry

Drought-stricken Lake Mead keeps shrinking. The multibillion-dollar plan to pipe water from rural Nevada figures to be clogged in the courts for many years.

But when I raised the subject of investing in desalination a few months ago, I got the strong feeling there wasn’t much active interest at the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Their experts knew all about it, of course, but they also recognized it was expensive and probably wouldn’t be needed for decades to come.

SNWA General Manager John Entsminger politely called it “a viable future resource option.” By which I think he meant, “Check back in 30 years, and maybe we’ll need to start separating salt from seawater.”

It’s understandable. Conservation and wastewater reclamation are more viable, in part because they’re well understood and cheaper. Although Carlsbad, Calif., is the new home to a $1 billion, state-of-the-art desalination plant that in a few months will be capable of generating 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water per day, that’s not a lot when you consider Southern Nevadans use 900 million gallons every 24 hours.

Still, I can’t help thinking that if we don’t start creating a desalination model for Southern Nevada — whether that means starting a conversation with California or even Mexico — we may find that with continued drought, the 30-year estimate shrinks along with Lake Mead.

I might have found some allies in Southern Nevada in UNLV Ph.D student Genevieve Minter and College of Southern Nevada water specialist Mark Bird. They co-authored “Top 10 Myths About Desalination” in the November 2014 edition of Water Conditioning &Purification.

In case your subscription to WC&P has expired, I’ll synthesize their article, which sought to debunk a few prevailing perceptions about desalination. For starters, that it’s not a priority because the drought-ravaged West still has plenty of time to adjust its habits.

Although Lake Mead’s dramatic losses are visible, what is concealed is the fact, according to a 2014 NASA study, that the Colorado River Basin’s losses are even greater.

The idea that the cost of desalination is prohibitive is another misnomer, the authors believe. Although startup costs are high, continued use and improved technology gradually will bring down the price to produce drinking water, and investing in renewable energy to power the plant — as other countries have done — will pay off in the long run.

There’s no time to wait for the government to dump big money into desalination plants. Although billions were made available for solar and other renewable energy projects, desalination rarely has been mentioned as a smart place to invest tax dollars.

Coastal land is expensive, but other countries have dealt with scarcity of real estate by going vertical.

But won’t desalination play havoc with the environment?

“It is a myth to believe that desalination cannot be done without massive harm to the environment,” Minter and Bird write. “Completed in 2012, the Victoria, Australia desalination plant is perhaps the greenest plant on the planet. It can supply water for 1 million people.”

And although it has had challenges, they add, its power is entirely offset by renewable energy, and it has created 556 acres of wildlife habitat.

Although conservation continues to be the favored method of saving precious water resources, which the authors laud, they offer that publicly funded desalination facilities would complement conservation and wastewater recovery models while building toward a drought-proof future.

With other nations, including Israel, leading the way out of necessity, maybe it’s time for Southern Nevada to consider moving up its desalination timetable.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Find him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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