Pipeline costs

As public works projects go, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s planned pipeline is a monster. It dwarfs the nearly complete widening of U.S. Highway 95 in scope and cost. It makes the delay- and defect-plagued Clark County Regional Justice Center seem as simple as tract housing. UNLV’s Lied Library and Boyd Law School? Like hooking up double-wides.

The pipeline, which could one day carry up to 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties to the growing Las Vegas metropolis, is an undertaking on the scale of Boston’s Big Dig, the Los Angeles subway system and the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Like all of these ongoing projects, the price tag of the water authority’s pipeline will run in the billions of dollars. And like all of these projects — like all public works projects everywhere, for that matter — it’s going to cost way more than what officials are promising.

On Monday, water authority Deputy General Manager Kay Brothers revealed that the pipeline, which had been promoted at a cost of about $2 billion over the past two years, would actually cost as much as $3.5 billion if construction began this month. The new estimate covers a pipeline that is 170 miles longer than initially proposed.

“I think we’re going to build a project that’s between the two,” Ms. Brothers said.

Growing Southern Nevada can count on only a limited supply of potable water from the drought-afflicted Colorado River. Unlike water agencies in the shortage-stricken Southeast, the water authority has been working on contingencies for years, and the pipeline project is the product of all its labors.

But like it or not, the merits of this project will hinge in large part on its cost. And make no mistake, that cost is going to keep growing … and growing … and growing … just like every other modern public works behemoth before it.

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