Dig this trip into hot tunnel project

The trip underground takes 3½ minutes in an elevator built to carry up to 22 people.

If you turned the Aria upside down and buried it, this would be a ride to the penthouse.

And you’re not even there yet.

It takes real work to get to the end of the new water intake now under construction at Lake Mead, a project some have called the most complicated tunneling job on Earth.

From the elevator, you descend a flight of stairs and climb inside a metal box on wheels for another three-minute ride, this time on a small railroad built 600 feet below ground.

The rails carry you through a 20-foot-tall concrete pipe now roughly two-thirds of a mile long and still more than two miles from completion.

At the end of the line, the train angles upward slightly as it drives onto the rear of the massive tunnel-boring machine — 600 feet long and as heavy as 300 elephants — that was specially built in Germany to dig the Southern Nevada Authority’s new straw into the lake.

You’ll be sweating long before you get there.


Once finished, the third intake is expected to keep water flowing to Las Vegas even if Lake Mead shrinks low enough to leave one of the community’s two existing straws high and dry.

The surface of the reservoir now sits at 1,106 feet above sea level. The latest federal projections call for it to drop 25 feet over the next year, to a record low not seen since Hoover Dam was finished and Lake Mead was filled for the first time.

If the lake keeps falling like it is, the authority could lose the use of intake No. 1 sometime in late 2015, when the reservoir hits the 1,050-foot mark.

The valley draws 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake.

The third intake is scheduled for completion by the end of next summer, but it’s “unlikely” that general contractor Vegas Tunnel Constructors will be done by then, says engineer Erika Moonin, project manager for the water authority.

She declines to speculate when it might be finished, except to say that “we’re confident we’ll get the project done and on line before intake No. 1 shuts down.”

The inside of the tunneling machine resembles the engineering space on a ship or submarine, with narrow metal walkways snaking past a maze of pipes, cables, control boxes and electric motors.

There’s machine noise and grime and dripping water, but there’s no sensation of depth or forward movement. You don’t feel the cutter head cutting or the weight of the rock and water looming above your head.

What you feel instead is heat, much of it generated by the grinding of the boring machine itself. A digital thermometer mounted along a metal railing delivers the bad news: 100 degrees. 28 percent humidity.

“Singapore in August,” says water authority spokesman J.C. Davis.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about my pool when I’m underground,” jokes Robin Rockey, the authority’s liaison to the project.

The contractor tries to cool the tunnel with an air conditioning unit big enough to cool most Strip resorts, but it doesn’t do much more than “take the edge off,” Moonin says.

The current mining crew includes about 100 people divided among three shifts. There is work going on underground 24 hours a day, six to seven days a week.

Workers spend their entire shift in the hole, including their lunch breaks.

“No cafeteria,” Moonin says with a laugh.


As the machine digs, a conveyor belt carries crushed rock back through the tunnel and dumps it into buckets to be lifted up the vertical access shaft to the surface.

One bucket holds 20 cubic yards of material, enough to landscape the yards of four average valley homes. Instead, this rock and dirt is being shaped into a berm that will partially shield the site from view once the third intake is finished.

The material coming out of the hole right now resembles gritty brown mud.

Each time the machine advances, the pipe behind it grows by 6 feet as a new ring of concrete is added just behind the giant digger’s shielded front section.

Each ring is made up of six preformed segments weighing 5 or 6 tons apiece. It will take roughly 2,400 rings to line all three miles of tunnel.

The utility lines, air ducts and conveyor belts that service the boring machine, also must be extended as it inches farther and farther away from the vertical access shaft.

The laser-guided digger is “steered” from a cramped control cabin about 100 feet from the cutter head, where a pair of workers scan a bank of screens and monitor radio traffic from all corners of the work site.

Eventually, the machine will come within about 50 feet of the lake bottom as it tunnels beneath the channel carved by the old Las Vegas Wash back when it flowed all the way to the untamed Colorado River.

The boring machine’s journey will end at an intake structure that Vegas Tunnel Constructors has already built underwater at the edge of the Colorado’s original alignment, now one of the deepest points in Lake Mead.

At $817 million and counting, this is the single most expensive construction project the water authority has ever undertaken.

Already, it has come at a terrible cost.

On June 11, 2012, worker Thomas Albert Turner, 44, was killed in a construction accident inside the tunnel. Stickers with the words “Tommy Turner” printed over the Superman logo decorate the guard shack and several hard hats at the work site.

Moonin says underground mining is such a specialized trade that workers often travel from job to job, forming a tight-knit group, almost like a family.


The project reached a milestone about eight weeks ago, when the machine dug beneath the shore of Lake Mead and tunneled under open water for the first time.

After crossing the shallow tip of Saddle Cove, the boring machine made its way back under dry land, but not for long. In a week or two it will cross the shoreline for the last time and curve gradually to the east for a roughly two-mile run directly beneath the 4 trillion gallon reservoir.

The conditions under the lake shouldn’t be much different than they were next to it. Moonin says the project has been “under the influence” of water almost from the start.

So much water and debris washed into the cavern early on — before the boring machine could be assembled underground — that the contractor had to abandon its first tunnel and dig a new one in a slightly different direction.

What followed was months of painfully slow progress through fractured rock and clay riddled with water-filled gaps that forced the machine to run in “closed mode,” using grout to pressurize the area around the cutter head.

The boring machine finally reached what Moonin calls “good, stable ground” in June and switched to “open mode” for the first time on July 8.

Since then, it has been clipping along at the breakneck pace of about an inch a minute as it carves its way through a uniform block of sedimentary rock that used to be a muddy creek bed roughly 7 million years ago.

After needing roughly 18 months to dig the first 2,850 feet of tunnel, the machine has advanced some 450 feet since early July alone. Monday marked the project’s most productive day yet, with 72 feet of new tunnel mined and 12 new rings added to the pipe.

Moonin hopes the worst ground is now behind them, “but there’s just no way to know with tunneling.”

“We do know there is challenging rock ahead. We won’t know how bad it is until we get there,” she says.


You leave the tunnel the same way you came, only in reverse: A cramped walk back through the machine, then the train, then the elevator .

The noonday sun is blinding at the top of the hole, but the dry air cools your skin. You’ll have to enjoy the feeling someplace else. A man in a hard hat motions to a load of concrete pipe segments suspended from a crane nearby, ready to be lowered down the shaft.

You are in the way.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

Tate Elementary shows academic progress after categorical funding
Students at Tate Elementary in Las Vegas has benefited from a program to boost education funding in targeted student populations, known as categorical funding. One program called Zoom helps students who have fallen below grade level in reading. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Three Square helps TSA workers
Three Square Food Bank donated over 400 care bags to TSA workers affected by the government shutdown Wednesday, filled with food, personal hygiene products and water.
Las Vegas furniture store donates to Clark County firehouses
Walker Furniture donated new mattresses to all 30 Clark County firehouses in the Las Vegas Valley, starting today with Station 22. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mount Charleston Gets Heavy Snow, Fog
Mount Charleston saw heavy snow today, and fog in lower elevations as a cold front swept across the Las Vegas Valley. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Krystal Whipple arrested in Arizona
Krystal Whipple, charged in the killing of a Las Vegas nail salon manager over a $35 manicure, is expected to return to Nevada to face a murder charge.
Holocaust survivor on acceptance
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, talks about the most important message for people to understand from her life and experiences.
Holocaust survivor speaks about telling her story
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, tells of opening up about her experiences during Sunday’s event at Temple Sinai.
Jesus Jara State of the Schools address
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara delivers his State of the Schools address on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Michael Naft sworn in to Clark County Commission
Michael Naft, chosen by Gov. Steve Sisolak to be his replacement on the Clark County Commission, was sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES Opening Party in Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace
CES conventioneers packed Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace, and let loose as they danced to DJs into the night. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas police piecing together details of fatal shooting
Six hours after the fact, Las Vegas homicide detectives worked to reconstruct the scene of a shooting early Jan. 7 that left one man dead in the southeast valley. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dyer Lawrence explains college football playoff system proposal
Las Vegan Dyer Lawrence has a new idea for a college football playoff system that includes a unique scheduling component called National Call Out Day. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death row inmate Scott Dozier found dead in his cell
Nevada death row inmate Scott Dozier is dead. Dozier’s death ends his legal odyssey, which began in 2007 when he was convicted in the 2002 murder of Jeremiah Miller, but does little to clarify what’s next for Nevada’s death penalty.
I-15 southbound near Primm closed after ‘major crash’
A rollover crash Saturday morning involving at least nine vehicles on southbound Interstate 15 near Primm caused an hourslong traffic delay. Traffic was backed up to Sloan, live traffic cameras show. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death Valley visitors deal with shutdown
Visitors staying at the Furnace Creek Campground were forced to move from the campground following health and safety concerns due to lack of resources during the partial government shutdown at Death Valley National Park in Calif., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. Richard Brian Las Vegas Review-Journal @vegasphotograph
Half of homicides in Henderson for 2018 domestic violence related
Lt. Kirk Moore of the public information office of the city of Henderson police department speaks to the Review-Journal in Henderson, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Henderson saw a slight increase in homicides in the past year. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak stops by Las Vegas Boys and Girls Club
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak kicks off his tour to Carson City, which will take him from Las Vegas, through Tonopah, and up to the capital city. First stop is the Downtown Boys & Girls Club.
Certificates for renewing wedding vows in Clark County
The Marriage License Bureau in Clark County began issuing a Certificate of Vow Renewal to married couples who are renewing their wedding vows on Jan. 3, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas flu season better than last year (so far)
Dr. Fermin Leguen, chief medical officer and director of clinical services at the Southern Nevada Health District, said there were 24 flu-related deaths at this point in the flu season. No deaths have been reported so far this year. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Las Vegas Valley’s First Baby of 2019
The first 2019 baby in the Las Vegas Valley was Melialani Chihiro Manning, born at 12:10 a.m. at Henderson Hospital. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas NYE Fireworks - VIDEO
The full show: A spectacular view from the rooftop of the Trump International Hotel as 80,000 pyrotechnics illuminated the Las Vegas Strip at the stroke of midnight. Fireworks by Grucci choreographed launches from the Stratosphere, the Venetian, Treasure Island, Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, Aria and MGM Grand.
Snow in Henderson on New Year's Eve morning
Light snow flurries in Anthem Highlands in Henderson on Monday morning, the last day of 2018.
Sources: Henderson Constable may face more charges
Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell may face additional charges ... stemming from his spending of county funds, sources said. Mitchell was indicted earlier this month on five felony theft and fraud charges ... after a Las Vegas Review-Journal story questioned his spending. But grand jury records show even more extensive spending including ... an $800 dinner at steakhouse ... nearly 200 atm withdrawals mostly at gambling establishments ... and even Disneyland tickets. But his attorney plans to ask a judge to dismiss the charges.
Las Vegas NYE Restrictions and Enhanced Security
If you are planning to celebrate New Year's Eve on the Las Vegas Strip or Fremont Street, be aware that you are not allowed to bring backpacks, coolers, strollers or glass. There will also be an increase in security to ensure safe celebrations across town.
Catholic Charities serves up 53rd annual Christmas dinner
Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and more than 100 volunteers served 1,000 Christmas meals to Southern Nevada's homeless and less fortunate. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal @kmcannonphoto)
Henderson couple adds another school to their generosity
Bob and Sandy Ellis of Henderson, who donate to several Clark County School District schools, have added Matt Kelly Elementary in Las Vegas to their list of schools where every student gets new shoes, socks and a toy. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jeffrey Martin Added To Nevada's Black Book
Martin was one of four men convicted of theft and cheating at gambling in 2016 in Clark County District Court and sentenced to prison. The Nevada Gaming Commission voted unanimously Thursday to include Martin in the black book.
Raiders Stadium Timelapse
Construction on the new Raiders stadium continues in Las Vegas.
Buffalo Wild Wings security video
Security footage from a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in southwest Las Vegas captured a driver who repeatedly crashed into a vehicle in a failed attempt to squeeze into a tight parking spot.
The Magical Forest at Opportunity Village
Opportunity Village's Magical Forest added 1 million lights and a synchronized music show visible from all over the forest this year. The holiday attraction, which began in 1991, has a train, rides, food and entertainment along with the light displays. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like