(Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.)

With people crowding into the Las Vegas area amid persistent drought, local officials are being forced to tap new water options. The Southern Nevada Water Authority needs an estimated 400,000 acre-ft more annually by 2025, according to Deputy General Manager Kay Brothers. “We have to be creative,” she says.

The water level in Lake Mead, the valley’s primary supply, is 74 ft lower than it was six years ago. To conserve, Clark County has banned new golf course construction and decorative fountains in commercial developments, among other things. In 2004, SNWA paid businesses and homeowners $1 per sq ft to tear up 68 million sq ft of grass and replace it with low-water alternatives. SNWA also has bought from Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.

Multimedia: Slideshow

Showing the Strain in Las Vegas
click here to view

But SNWA still plans to seek bids, possibly in late 2007, to build a new $650-million Lake Mead intake system that gives it water access in a drought. SNWA installed the first intake in the 1960s to operate at lake elevations of 1,050 ft above sea level. In 2000, it built a second intake to operate at elevations 50 ft below that (ENR 4/24/00 p. 62). The agency now is working with MW/Hill, a joint venture of CH2M Hill Cos. Ltd., Denver, and MWH, Broomfield, Colo., on geotechnical studies and predesign of a system to operate at levels as low as 900 ft.

Access to deeper, high-quality Lake Mead water now is critical to SNWA because it is negotiating to use the lake as the primary access to Colorado River water rights as part of the seven states agreement submitted to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton on Feb. 3.

If the proposed pact is finalized, SNWA will avoid construction of diversion dams, 50 miles of pipelines, pump stations and treatment facilities to draw 200,000 acre-ft of water annually from the Virgin and Muddy rivers in northeastern Clark County at a cost over $1 billion. Under the proposed deal, SNWA would fund a reservoir near the California/Mexico border in return for rights to 40,000 acre-ft of water annually.

Related Links:
  • Sustained, 20-Year Boom Leaves Vegas Showing The Strain
  • Nevada Power Co. Struggles To Recover After Hard Blows
  • Still in the pipeline is a 1989 application for rights to 125,000 acre-ft per year of unused groundwater in east-central Nevada that is still in environmental review for rights-of-way to transport the water over federal land. As early as 2015, SNWA could begin $2 billion of construction on wells, 461 miles of pipelines, 200 miles of power lines and four pump stations.

    A more politically charged solution is a plan for SNWA to pay for a desalination facility in California in exchange for more Colorado River rights. “That is a challenge right now because the California Coastal Commission hasn’t even been allowing very many in-state users permits, but it could be a long-term option,” says SNWA spokesman J.C. Davis.