North Las Vegas and Clark County officials are making a final push to resolve their dispute over the city’s new wastewater treatment plant before the city plunges into even deeper financial trouble.
North Las Vegas "literally has a financial gun at its head," former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, representing the city, told the County Commission on Tuesday. "I’m trying to avoid a train wreck here."
The entities also could wind up facing off in court.
At issue is the city’s plan to flush treated sewage from the $240 million plant, which is mostly complete, into an open, county-owned flood control channel. Without the channel, wastewater from the facility essentially has no place to go.
The commission in March voted against allowing the city to use the Sloan Channel. Critics such as Commissioners Tom Collins and Chris Giunchigliani, whose districts include parts of the channel, have fought the city’s plan to discharge about 25 million gallons of effluent a day into the channel, from where it would flow several miles into the Las Vegas Wash, then downstream to Lake Mead. Constituents walk and bike in the channel, they say, and the city was foolish to build the plant in the first place.
The facility originally was scheduled to open this month. Until it does, the city must pay Las Vegas roughly $15 million a year to continue treating its wastewater. Also, the city must pay the bond debt on the project, some $15 million in fiscal year 2012. The city, which is dealing with a $22.6 million shortfall, can’t afford both bills.
"We’re under the gun now," Mayor Shari Buck said.
Giunchigliani showed no signs of budging in her opposition.
"I don’t think our constituents should be paying for North Las Vegas’ inappropriate judgment," she said.
Other commissioners seemed more conciliatory, or at least opposed to dumping the matter on the courts.
"This may be the last chance to address it … outside the courtroom," Commissioner Larry Brown said. "Can we save this before the courts are going to tell us what we can and cannot do?"
City defends plan to use channel
North Las Vegas decided to build its own plant in 2005 so it could control its own wastewater rates.
The city planned to discharge the effluent via an $860 million regional pipeline, but that project was put on hold because declining growth and advances in sewage treatment had reduced the need for it.
City officials have defended the plan to instead use Sloan Channel, saying treated wastewater will be cleaner than storm water and other runoff that already flows through it.
They also say releasing effluent into the channel is no different than sending it into the Las Vegas Wash, which the valley’s other wastewater treatment facilities already do.
The city has agreed to pay the county $50,000 a year to maintain the channel.
City and county officials have squabbled over whether North Las Vegas has the right to discharge into Sloan Channel without the county’s permission. The city has received authorization to discharge into the channel from the state’s Division of Environmental Protection. But the division told the Review-Journal that its permission "doesn’t supersede local authority" over use of the channel for discharge.
Collins recently floated the idea of asking the Clark County Water Reclamation District to build a pipeline — at a cost of roughly $50 million — to carry the treated effluent along the same route. That would save the county money in the long-term because "if development returns," the county wouldn’t have to expand existing sewer lines into unincorporated areas of the county that are closer to the North Las Vegas plant, he said.
That idea didn’t appear to gain much traction with other commissioners.
"I don’t really want to spend water (reclamation) money and get paid back with credit or a gift certificate for water treatment," Commissioner Steve Sisolak said.
Commissioners also have expressed concerns that the city might try to take over treatment of sewage from Nellis Air Force Base, which would cost the county about $1.25 million a year in revenue.
The new plant is located outside North Las Vegas on land leased from the Air Force at Carey Avenue, south of the base. City officials have pledged they would not pursue the Nellis revenue at least until the county’s contract with the base expires in about nine years.
Critics call NLV plan impractical
Critics have said it was impractical for North Las Vegas to build the plant in the first place. But city officials said they wanted the city to be able to set its own sewer rates, and they couldn’t have foreseen the cancellation of the regional pipeline or the economy’s impending nosedive.
"I think to cut your neighbors a little slack, 2005 was a very different environment economically," Bryan said. "North Las Vegas was facing one of the largest expansion rates in the country, as was Clark County."
City and county staffers will work together over the next several weeks to try to come up with a solution, and the matter should come back before the commission in June.
Whatever happens, Buck said she is confident the plant will be up and running shortly.
"I really hope it doesn’t come to litigation," she said.
But if it does, Collins believes the county would prevail.
"Anybody can sue anybody for anything," he said. "North Las Vegas is not in a favorable position."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.