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Water authority touts pipeline while foes pursue desalination plant

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has heard this kind of salty language before.

It comes up during almost any discussion of the agency’s plans to siphon groundwater from across eastern Nevada. It will almost certainly come up again this week, when a state hearing on those plans resumes in Carson City.

The argument goes something like this: Instead of spending billions of dollars to pump and pipe rural Nevada groundwater to Las Vegas, why not invest that money in desalination plants along the coast?

It’s a tantalizing idea to be sure.

Even after two decades of study, water officials can only offer an educated guess about how much water is really locked away beneath the arid valleys of Lincoln and White Pine counties.

The Pacific Ocean offers a supply so vast even the horizon can’t contain it.

The trouble lies in Nevada’s conspicuous lack of beachfront property.

"How do we get it here? That’s the problem," said water authority general manager Pat Mulroy.

The cheapest option is for the water authority to help pay for a desalination plant on the coast in exchange for the right to pull more Colorado River water out of Lake Mead.

But Mulroy said even that scenario is fraught with barriers both political and technological.

Even under the best of circumstances, Mulroy thinks it could take 10 years or more for even a small pilot desalination program to begin benefiting Nevada.

"It is part of our future," she said. "At some point, Southern Nevada will be a partner in a desalting plant in Mexico. I think we will step into it gradually."

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

The water authority took the first step recently when it partnered with Mexico and municipal water suppliers in Arizona and California on a feasibility study for a desalination plant near the growing city of Rosarito, south of Tijuana.

With a total capacity of 100,000 acre-feet of water, the plant would rank among the largest in the world, including those in the Middle East, North Africa and Australia where desalination is in widespread use.

The authority would receive some percentage of that based on its investment in the plant, minus whatever it takes to sell Mexico on the deal.

It won’t be an easy sell.

Any such exchange with Mexico could force that country to take valuable farmland out of production along its northern border, where its share of the Colorado River is used. Very little water from the river reaches the coastal cities that would directly benefit from desalination.

Jose Gutierrez, assistant director for binational affairs at Mexico’s National Water Commission, recently told The Associated Press that his country would never give up the Colorado River water it is guaranteed under its 1944 treaty with the United States.

"The treaty carries great significance in our country. We have to protect it fiercely," Gutierrez said.

Assuming such international issues can be worked out, Southern Nevada still would be left with an arrangement that only works if the Colorado River has enough water to allow an exchange.

In that way, desalination offers no true remedy for the problem water authority officials say they hope to solve with their pipeline to White Pine County: Southern Nevada’s reliance on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its drinking water supply.

"It will be a boutique option," Mulroy said. "It’s not a silver bullet."

GOING COASTAL

Desalination is not even a silver bullet on the Pacific Coast, where California’s largest municipal water supplier has reached across deserts and mountains to serve its growing customer base.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in a 5,200-square-mile service area that includes Los Angeles and San Diego.

General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said one thing that gets overlooked in all the talk of desalination is volume, both in terms of how much water current desalting plants can produce and how much water his agency gets from other sources.

To replace the roughly 1.5 million acre-feet the water district draws from the Sacramento River Delta, for example, you would have to build a desalination plant as large as any in the world every four miles between Los Angeles and San Diego.

"And we can’t even get one built," Kightlinger said.

For one thing, it’s an industry with a large footprint. The process of removing salt from saltwater consumes a lot of energy and produces a waste stream of brine that can be difficult and expensive to dispose of. In addition to the water works themselves, power plants and landfills and transmission corridors are needed.

"It’s complicated to site anything in California, and it’s even harder at the coast," Kightlinger said.

Mulroy put it another way. With all its various layers of government, environmental regulation and influence from conservation groups, "California has wrapped itself around an axle on desalination."

Five plants are on the drawing board in the water district’s service area, and the one closest to finally starting construction is a 50,000-acre-foot facility in Carlsbad that has been in the works for roughly a decade.

Kightlinger said if all five of those plants get built one day, they will produce less than 3 percent of the drinking water his agency currently supplies.

Southern California also has a plumbing problem. Its water system largely starts inland and runs downhill to the sea, where the smallest pipes are located. Large-scale desalination would require water to move in the opposite direction, from sea level to end users almost 2,000 feet uphill.

Kightlinger fully expects desalted ocean water to be part of his agency’s portfolio some day, but it’s unlikely to be a significant source for at least 25 years.

By then, he said, "making any of that available to, say, Nevada is going to be very difficult," because Southern California is going to need all of the water it can get from wherever it can get it.

Even in the midst of economic turmoil, Kightlinger said, the population within his water district ‘s service area continues to grow by about 165,000 people a year.

A PIPELINE TOO FAR

If Nevada can’t work out a trade for Colorado River water with California or Mexico, our only choice is to go get the seawater ourselves.

But that option isn’t really an option at all, Mulroy said.

Several years ago, the authority ran cost estimates for a 100,000-acre-foot desalination plant, associated power facility and pipeline to bring purified seawater from the coast to Southern Nevada. The price tag came to $8.4 billion, more than 2½ times the $3.2 billion estimate the authority developed for its in-state groundwater project using the same set of assumptions. And that does not include permitting or operational costs.

Mulroy said the "back of napkin estimate" for the power costs alone comes to about $400 million a year, because the desalted water would have to be pumped uphill across hundreds of miles of mountains and desert.

Power isn’t a problem in Saudi Arabia, where you can run an oil pipeline directly into the water plant, but here "you’d have to build a nuclear power plant," Mulroy said. "It doesn’t make sense."

The authority hopes its in-state groundwater project yields up to 170,000 acre-feet of water a year. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas homes for one year.

The groundwater pipeline would run mostly downhill to reach Las Vegas, generating some of its own energy supply along the way.

NO SILVER BULLET

The authority’s critics argue that the pipeline project isn’t a reliable option either.

They insist the rural valleys targeted for groundwater development cannot be sustainably pumped; so when they inevitably run dry, the authority will be left with two choices: Abandon a multibillion-dollar investment or extend its spider web of pipelines farther still.

"This is a horror show coming to a valley near you if you live anywhere between here and the Humboldt River," said longtime rancher Hank Vogler, who runs sheep in the White Pine County water­shed that would anchor the pipeline project.

"The most sensible thing to do is trade Colorado River water for desalted ocean water or whatever it takes," Vogler said. "It makes so much better sense than causing an environmental holocaust."

Howard Watts from the anti-pipeline Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said his organization agrees with the authority about one thing: There is no one simple way to slake Southern Nevada’s thirst.

"Desalination is one possible weapon in our arsenal," Watts said. "We need to look at increased conservation, we need to look into other sources of water, and we need to look at a sustainable growth model for a city built in a desert."

Mulroy acknowledged that the proposed groundwater project isn’t the only answer anymore than desalination is. It will take a combination of things to keep water flowing to Las Vegas should the Colorado shrink and the community grow.

"The pipeline project isn’t a silver bullet either," she said. "It’s part of a mosaic that we’ve got to build."

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

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