Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2014

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2020 Vision:

State of water depends on the Colorado River

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Sam Morris

Pat Mulroy in May 2007.

In the coming decade our primary water source, the Colorado River, will have more years with less water than years with more water. Still, I’m optimistic that Las Vegas will be ready for whatever nature throws our way.

If the drought gets very severe in the Colorado River Basin, water should become a national topic, and we’ll be talking about retooling the nation’s water supply as a whole. A lot depends on whether there’s a larger national solution or if Southern Nevada has to take care of itself.

By 2020 I think we will have developed partnerships with Mexican entities for desalination plants and exchanging water on the Colorado River.

As far as the pipeline to bring water from Northern Nevada to Southern Nevada, you tell me what the hydrology in the Snake Valley Basin looks like in 2020 and I’ll tell you if we’re going there. If Southern Nevada has to fend for itself, I think we’ll have no choice but to develop that water supply. We can’t desalt our way out of this problem; the solution has to be larger and more dramatic.

As long as water supplies on the Colorado River stay relatively stable, Southern Nevada has lots of opportunities for water exchanges and desalination. But if climate scientists’ worst-case scenario on the Colorado River were to materialize and lake levels were to drop significantly, this conversation would change dramatically.

If we see a real downturn in the hydrology, then I’m not sure we have a choice but to begin pursuing the in-state pipeline.

We’ll have our third intake at Lake Mead finished in 2013, and that will give us access to better-quality lake water for most of the next decade. Plus, the chances are pretty high that the lake will drop below the level of our two existing intakes, so the third intake will guarantee our access to water for the foreseeable future, barring some catastrophic event.

Water quality is going to continue to be important. Right now we have top-of-the-line treatment facilities. Very few places do this level of treatment on water. But we’re not going to keep every little thing out of the water all the time. The desire of some groups to have water with absolutely nothing in it is going to run afoul of available technology. We can’t use reverse-osmosis to treat every drop of water that comes into this community. It would cost billions of dollars of investment and it wouldn’t mean a drop more water or impact public health.

Regardless, water prices are going to go up gradually in the next 10 years. They have to. I don’t know how you avoid it. Whether it’s desalination or new water treatment technology or increased conservation, you’re going to see prices gradually nudge up.

I think we’ll continue to see more conservation. I think the community would resist stricter rules on turf, but there’s still a lot of unnecessary turf that can be removed and lots of improvements that can be made. Irrigation technology is going to improve, allowing us to use less water to maintain landscaping in a desert environment. And I see the green building community coming around to crediting us for our water recycling program instead of pushing gray water systems, which don’t create a single new drop of water. The only way I see us having to enact more stringent conservation measures would be in case of a resource crisis.

Ten years is a very long time, and I’ve seen lots of changes occur within a 10-year period, so I think a lot hinges on whether or not the hydrology in the basins really gets bad.

Pat Mulroy is the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

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