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July 28, 2014

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Clean Water Coalition balks at localities’ request to return cash

Sewer service customers have been paying toward a wastewater pipeline the valley may no longer need

Image

Sam Morris

The path of the Clean Water Coalition’s proposed pipeline would cross this stretch of the Las Vegas Wash to expel treated wastewater into the deeper depths of greater Lake Mead. Currently, the wastewater flows through the Las Vegas Wash, and trickles into a part of Lake Mead called Las Vegas Bay, where it concentrates.

Click to enlarge photo

Chip Maxfield, general manager of the Clean Water Coalition, shows the path of the coalition's proposed pipeline to send treated wastewater to Lake Mead. Maxfield favors postponing the pipeline project -- not scrapping it -- so the effect of quagga mussels on the lake can be assessed.

This story, at a glance

  • Where does our treated wastewater go now? Water flows down the Las Vegas Wash before trickling into and concentrating in Las Vegas Bay, which is a part of greater Lake Mead.
  • Why a pipeline? The pipeline would cross the Las Vegas Wash and better dilute treated water by expelling it at the bottom of Lake Mead, increasing the lake’s overall water quality. As such, drinking water drawn from the lake will need less treatment by chemicals that affect taste and create health risks.
  • Why don’t we need it? Technological advances have improved the quality of treated wastewater. In Lake Mead, toxins have been reduced by better chemicals and an invasion of quagga mussels.
  • What about the money? Governments have asked for the fees to be returned, but the Clean Water Coalition intends to use the money for other purposes.

A combination of improved water-filtering technology, the quagga mussel and the lousy economy could save Clark County residents nearly $1 billion.

The managers of the valley’s local governments are urging elected officials to force the quasi-governmental Clean Water Coalition to kill its plan to build an $860 million pipeline to flow treated wastewater deep into Lake Mead. Currently, the treated water flows down the Las Vegas Wash and into Las Vegas Bay.

The project was once seen as way to improve the mixing of treated water with lake water. But better wastewater treatment technology and the way the massive colonies of quagga mussels are filtering lake water should allow the valley to get by without the project.

On top of massive future savings, killing the pipeline might save taxpayers money on sewer bills and sewer connection fees. Both increased in recent years to build reserves needed to start pipeline plans and construction, and plans were to keep increasing connection fees every six months until January 2012 to cover some pipeline costs.

Not only might bills decline, but some money could be returned to local governments. After the Clean Water Coalition pays off a $20 million short-term loan that was supposed to be used for the pipeline, it will have about $60 million in the bank. That money came from connection and sewer fees dedicated to the pipeline plan.

Now local governments say the money should be returned.

In a Dec. 8 letter that suggests terminating the pipeline project, the managers of Henderson, Las Vegas and Clark County also ask the coalition to find a way to “appropriately dispense the unspent funds.”

The coalition’s board didn’t do that at its Dec. 15 meeting, however. Instead, the board voted to mothball the pipeline plan until 2012, when it will have more water quality information.

Questions about the money — whether fees should be terminated and how money should be returned to governments or ratepayers — are to be discussed at the board’s Jan. 26 meeting.

Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, the county’s representative on the coalition board, said the water panel needs to discuss “how we go about an equitable reimbursement program.”

Henderson Councilman Steven Kirk, his city’s voice on the board, said if the pipeline is killed, the Clean Water Coalition must return collected money, otherwise it would be tantamount to “collecting it under false pretenses.”

“Not giving it back wouldn’t make sense,” Kirk added. A dollar-for-dollar reimbursement won’t happen, however, because some of the money has been spent on design and other aspects of the project.

The largest, relatively new businesses such as M Resort, which opened in 2008, paid connection fees as high as $1 million, Kirk said.

Richard Mendes, general manager of the Clark County Water Reclamation District, is among those recommending funding for the project “should be terminated right now, and no more money should be collected.”

Not everyone agrees with Brown, Kirk and Mendes, however, most notably former County Commissioner Chip Maxfield. When he was a commissioner, Maxfield served as chairman of the Clean Water Coalition board.

Soon after he left elected office, the board hired him as general manager at the Clean Water Coalition, where he is paid $150,000 and gets $74,669 in benefits annually. All told, he and three staff members are reaping $621,557 in salary and benefits this fiscal year.

When the coalition board hired Maxfield in February, Brown recused himself because Maxfield had supported Brown’s campaign to win a seat on the Clark County Commission. Like Maxfield before him, Brown is now chairman of the coalition board.

When the Sun asked Maxfield how the pipeline money could be divvied up among Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County, Maxfield asked a question back.

“Where are you coming from about giving the money back? What’s the basis for that?” he said.

He indicated the money and fees could be used to improve water quality in other ways.

“The underlying premise is maintaining water quality for this community,” Maxfield replied. “If (the pipeline) isn’t needed, then what other water quality improvements have been done and what other water quality improvements need to be done that are cost effective?”

Maxfield also said the roughly $8 a typical residence pays annually to the coalition should not be eliminated, and that sewer connection fees that have risen from $400 in 2006 to $871 this month should not be lowered.

“I would suggest that the (annual fee) does not go away because we need to maintain water quality,” he said. “The same with the hookup fees.”

Maxfield said the coalition is looking at how its money could be used to improve wastewater treatment. Among some of the ideas being considered, he added, are putting money toward better treatment at four wastewater plants in the valley and making improvements to the Las Vegas Wash, where all treated wastewater flows before going into Lake Mead.

Maxfield stressed that even if the pipeline is canceled, the Clean Water Coalition board has all but promised that the coalition would be preserved as a “regional voice for wastewater dischargers.”

“There is most definitely a need for the Clean Water Coalition with or without the (pipeline) project,” he said.

•••

Formed in 2002 through an interlocal agreement between Clark County, Henderson and Las Vegas (North Las Vegas joined later), the Clean Water Coalition was created with the express goal of building a pipeline that would jut deep into Lake Mead. Called the Systems Conveyance and Operations Program, or SCOP (pronounced “scope”) for short, the idea behind the pipeline was that releasing treated water deep into the lake would dilute it better than having it trickle from Las Vegas Wash into Las Vegas Bay.

As recently as last summer, the coalition said the pipeline was necessary. The agency wrote in its June 30 financial plan that “as Las Vegas grows, the mixing capacity of the Las Vegas Bay is reaching its limit.”

But in a recent interview, Mendes, the Water Reclamation District general manager, said the guiding principle behind the pipeline — that “dilution is the solution to pollution” — no longer holds because growth is stagnant and wastewater treatment has so greatly improved.

“We project that with the improvements (in treatment), we will not have a problem for at least 30 years, maybe longer,” Mendes said. “That’s even with no change in technology. So we don’t think the project is necessary.”

A big goal of wastewater treatment is the removal of phosphorous. Phosphorous is a concern because it’s something of a gourmet meal to algae. Phosphorous levels in Lake Mead became a big concern in the summer of 2001 after algae blooms broke out across the lake.

An organic material, algae forces water treatment plants to use more disinfectants, Water Reclamation District Deputy Manager Doug Drury said. Disinfectants such as chlorine react with organic matter to produce trihalomethane, which some studies have linked to cancer. Disinfectants can also affect how water tastes.

With graphs showing phosphorous levels in Lake Mead since the 1950s, Mendes demonstrated how new technology, especially the addition of another chemical process in 2005 to further remove phosphorous from the water, led to sharp declines in phosphorous after 2001 — even as the flow of treated wastewater into Lake Mead increased with the explosive growth of Clark County.

“The question is: If we can do it in our treatment plants, do you need the pipeline?” Drury said. “Ten years ago we didn’t have the technology to optimize treatment. That’s what’s really changed.”

Ten years ago, we didn’t have the quagga mussel, either.

Discovered in 2007 in Lake Mead, the aquatic foreigner is now believed to number in the trillions. Mendes and Drury said the mussel has had some effect on water quality because it feeds on algae, which feed on phosphorous.

But Maxfield countered that the mussel’s exact effect on water quality is unknown. (What, for example, will the excrement of trillions of mussels do to the lake water?)

That’s partly why the coalition board voted to only mothball the pipeline, Maxfield said. “By 2012, the mussel will have been in existence for about five years, and most experts say that before you know what kind of effect there will be, there needs to be about a five-year life cycle.”

Finally, the poor economy has led to a stabilization or decrease in Clark County’s population. The explosive growth that was occurring when the pipeline was dreamed up 10 years ago is not happening.

All that information was presented to the four member agencies of the Clean Water Coalition, Mendes said, resulting in the conclusion that “the SCOP project is not necessary.”

That conclusion was memorialized in the Dec. 8 letter to the coalition. The letter also asked the coalition to figure out what to do with unspent money, to stop collecting assessments from local governments, and to figure out what, if any, role the coalition has post-pipeline.

Finally, the letter calls for the coalition to deliver a report on this by June 30.

What happens to the Clean Water Coalition will be in the hands of its board, made up of elected representatives from Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County. There’s a chance that even if the board decides it isn’t needed, it could be taken under the wing of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The county’s representative, Brown, acknowledged that the board will “look at the Clean Water Coalition’s role and see if that could be incorporated into the Southern Nevada Water Authority.”

J.C. Davis, water authority spokesman, said that if the Clean Water Coalition were dissolved, “we think its water quality function is important, and we’d be willing to take to the SNWA board of directors the idea of absorbing those responsibilities.”

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