Undeveloped properties use millions of gallons of water

On five acres of dirt in the southwest valley, a group of investors pays to water the weeds in hopes of hanging on to their unfinished cul-de-sac.

Las Vegas native Howard Johnson installed the irrigation lines himself to save the group a few hundred bucks.

The automated drip system at the back of the undeveloped property kicks on twice a day, dribbling out more than 20,000 gallons of treated drinking water each month. That’s enough to supply almost two average homes or, in this case, to keep the soil perpetually damp in a trench on an empty lot.

"All I’ve got growing now is a big, nice row of tumbleweeds, which aren’t really enhancing the value of the property," Johnson said with a laugh.

It seems like an awful waste to him, but he isn’t worried about getting caught by the authorities from the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

After all, they’re the ones who told him to do it.

NEW POLICY FOR NEW PROBLEM

It’s called water quality mitigation, a phrase born of collapse much like "robo-signing" or "strategic default."

The valley’s largest water utility adopted the policy in May 2009 to address a problem it never really had before: what to do with new residential developments that hooked up to the distribution system and then stalled before any homes were built.

Depending on their configuration, some of these unfinished subdivisions became dead branches in the system. With no outlet to provide circulation, the water would sit in the pipes and grow stagnant as the residual treatment chemicals degraded.

After the housing bubble burst, the district suddenly found itself with dozens of these dead branches. Something had to be done to keep the bad water from mixing with the good.

Under the policy, property owners have two choices: Use enough water to flush out their pipes every three days — that is how long the residual chlorine in our water is designed to last — or be disconnected from the system altogether, a process known as being "cut and capped."

"Because public health is the concern, simply turning a valve to the off position does not provide a sufficient safeguard against potential contamination," said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the water district. "We can’t afford to take any chances with the drinking water supply."

GOOD MONEY AFTER BAD?

Johnson is just doing whatever he can to hang on to what’s left of his nest egg.

The lifelong resident said he plowed all his savings into real estate, which seemed like the safest and most reliable way to go at the time.

The crash wiped him out. All he has left is his withered stake in the unfinished five acres near Tenaya Way and Pebble Road, so that’s where he is making his stand.

When the developer went bust and the property reverted to the investors, Johnson spent six months tracking down everyone in the group: 51 total strangers from across the country, most of them seniors who had been thrown together by an investment company.

Some of the investors have told him they are ready to give up and sell the land for a fraction of the $2.3 million they paid for it, but Johnson said their only chance is to hang on and hope the market turns.

He eventually wants to plant trees in the trenches he dug along the perimeter of the property. Right now, though, there are taxes and other expenses to be paid and little appetite to spend more money on the land.

Johnson said he doesn’t like shelling out $100 a month for water he doesn’t need, but he never felt like he had a choice. If their service is cut and capped, they might be forced to dig up their existing pipes and install all new ones at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars. The permits alone would top $100,000, Johnson said.

Other owners of dormant developments told similar stories. They said they felt like the choice the water district gave them wasn’t really a choice at all.

But Davis said the water district simply cannot guarantee that abandoned plumbing will be allowed to reconnect to the distribution system.

When the time comes to hook back up, it will be up to an inspector to decide whether the pipes are serviceable and do not pose a water quality threat.

AN ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEM

John Hiatt is one of Johnson’s fellow investors. He is also an outspoken environmental advocate, so the idea of using drinking water to grow weeds in the desert is especially bothersome to him.

"It’s kind of a conundrum," Hiatt said. "The water district has put every property owner into the position of having to waste this water or they cut you off and you have to start all over again at a very high cost."

He said the same thing is happening at another stalled development next to his home in the south valley. There is a sprinkler in the middle of the lot, and it comes on every so often to water the dirt.

"The people on the customer side of this have no choice," he said. "There must be dozens of these things around the valley."

According to the water district, the current number is 60, including several different half-built subdivisions owned by the same developer.

To keep from being disconnected, the properties consume a combined total of about 22 million gallons each year. That is roughly the same amount used annually by 133 average single-family homes.

How much water developers are required to flush depends on the layout and size of their properties.

Customers now in the mitigation program all pay a flat construction rate of $3.09 per 1,000 gallons. Their monthly bills range from about $15 to as high as $500.

Davis said the district encourages property owners to put the water to some beneficial use, but there are no rules spelling out what must be done with it.

Some developers choose to plant trees and other landscaping on their property and use the water for irrigation. Others pump it into tanker trucks and haul it to other subdivisions or construction sites.

Davis said the water can be discharged into the sewer, but that rarely happens because most undeveloped properties don’t have sewer connections.

AN ISLAND OF GREEN

The property Johnson is so desperate to hang on to is something of an eyesore.

The development is known as Enchantment Gardens, but at the moment it is littered with piles of rocks and dirt. The road feeding into it is little more than a roughly bladed path lined with hydrants and orange construction cones like gravestones from a boom gone bust.

The plan was to build a walled enclave for seven or eight 4,000-square-foot homes, each valued at about a million dollars, "at least at that time," Johnson said.

The designs were so unique and modern they prompted articles in local architecture magazines. Each home would be outfitted with solar panels and all the latest energy-efficient, eco-friendly technology.

The former developer was kind enough to hand over all the drawings and blueprints so the green mansions of Enchantment Gardens might still get built one day.

If that ever happens, Johnson wouldn’t mind being there when a street sign finally goes up at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Right now, the name only exists on planning documents: Sustainable Court.

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

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