Utility officials water down pipeline fears

The good people of the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes region can relax. Although officials in Southern Nevada would love to have some of your water, they don’t have any practical way of getting it.

And they aren’t looking for a way, either.

“We’re having enough trouble getting water from within our own state,” said Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

But despite all the barriers involved in what would be one of the largest and most expensive water importation projects in the history of the world, the prospect of a pipeline stretching from Las Vegas to the Columbia River or Lake Superior has some people worried.

Huntley said he has fielded phone calls from reporters across North America, all wondering the same thing: What, exactly, is Nevada up to?

“It comes in spurts,” he said. “I’ve had calls from Canada, Michigan, Ohio and Chicago. I haven’t really covered all of the Great Lakes (states), but I’m close.”

The most recent string of media inquiries came late last year, after then-presidential candidate Bill Richardson suggested that northern states should share water with the Southwest.

The New Mexico governor made no specific reference to Nevada or the Great Lakes, but he did call for “a national water policy” and noted that “states like Wisconsin are awash in water.”

The issue came up again in early January, this time in Canada, when environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said the Southwest is “already experiencing a water crisis” and officials here are “looking for Canada to bail them out.”

During a speech at a charity event, the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy urged Canadians to resist the pressure to sell their water — even the bottled variety — to their neighbors to the south.

For the record, Huntley said the Southern Nevada Water Authority isn’t trying to tap the Great Lakes or the rivers of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

“Obviously, the answer is an easy one for us: No. No we’re not,” he said with a chuckle.

Both make tempting targets, though, especially for a community that is rushing to tap groundwater elsewhere in Nevada before it outgrows its supply of Colorado River water in five to eight years.

The Great Lakes are home to 84 percent of all the fresh surface water in North America. Only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water.

On the Columbia River, meanwhile, more water flows past The Dalles in Oregon each day than Nevada takes out of the Colorado each year.

To tap that water and move it to Nevada and other parched areas of the Sun Belt would require a massive federal effort, not to mention the cooperation of a whole host of state officials at each end of the pipeline and the places in between.

“Even then, it would be a daunting proposition,” said water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy.

Huntley put it another way. “When you talk about stumbling blocks, we’re talking about putting-a-man-on-the-moon-type stumbling blocks,” he said. “Just think about all the jurisdictions you’d have to go through. The mind boggles.”

Then there is the cost.

The water authority expects to pay between $2 billion and $3.5 billion to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across Eastern Nevada. Critics insist it will cost considerably more.

And that’s for a pipeline network covering about 250 miles. The Columbia River is at least 700 miles from Las Vegas. Even a straight shot to the nearest point on the Great Lakes would require some 1,400 miles worth of pipeline.

Though such a project is technically possible, Mulroy said it would take “an absolute Armageddon crisis” before anything like it would be seriously contemplated.

To justify the trouble and expense you would need to have tried everything else, including desalting seawater and converting all agricultural rights for residential use.

Long before that happens, Nevada water officials will pursue a much closer source of water: the Pacific Ocean. And even then, you probably won’t see construction of a massive straw from Las Vegas to the California coast.

Instead, the authority will help pay for desalination plants in California and Mexico in exchange for a share of their Colorado River allocations.

Of course, a plan like that only works if there is water to be had in the Colorado, which currently accounts for about 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s supply but is shrinking in the face of a prolonged drought.

Mulroy said as long as the drought persists, so will the paranoia in water-rich parts of the United States and Canada.

“There are people who are convinced there is already a secret pipe to the Southwest from Lake Erie,” she said. “It just goes to show you that even in areas that have unbelievable amounts of water, people are just terrified when someone talks about taking some of their water. It’s pretty funny.”

But Duluth, Minn., Mayor Don Ness isn’t laughing.

“It is an issue that is taken very seriously in our area. Lake Superior is our greatest natural resource,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Our water levels affect not only our natural habitat, but also our shipping commerce. Diversion of water from the lakes would only make this problem worse.”

Ness said the only water exportation he favors is the kind performed by tourists.

“When visiting Duluth, folks are welcome to as much fresh Lake Superior water as they can drink,” he said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or (702) 383-0350.


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