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October 20, 2014

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Las Vegas to pull out of Clean Water Coalition

City council members hoping to recoup money taxpayers paid in fees for mothballed pipeline project

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Sam Morris

At one time, the Clean Water Coalition had planned a pipeline that would have crossed this stretch of the Las Vegas Wash to expel treated wastewater into the deeper depths of greater Lake Mead. However, the CWC mothballed that project and the Nevada Legislature took $62 million allocated for it.

Click to enlarge photo

Oscar Goodman

Click to enlarge photo

Steve Ross

The Nevada Legislature's decision earlier this year to siphon $62 million from the Clean Water Coalition has spurred the Las Vegas City Council to pull out of the coalition.

The council voted unanimously today to withdraw as a member of the CWC, which was established in 2002 and includes as members the cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas and the Clark County Water Reclamation District.

The other members of the coalition have discussed pulling out of the CWC, but Las Vegas is the first to do so.

The coalition was created to oversee construction of an $880 million pipeline that would funnel treated wastewater deep into Lake Mead. The purpose was to better dilute the water rather than letting it drain into the shallow Las Vegas Bay, an inlet of Lake Mead.

However, the CWC voted to mothball that project in December because wastewater treatment technology had improved so drastically that the pipeline was no longer needed.

The CWC had planned to decide in the future whether to keep the money already collected, or to refund. State lawmakers, looking almost everywhere for money this year, decided to take $62 million from the CWC. The money came from connection fees for businesses and residences and also from sewer fees. Sewer fees total about $8 per year for the average residence, which brings in about $7 million a year.

Jorge Cervantes, director of the city's public works department, said today's action allows the city to make an official request to withdraw from the coalition.

According to the staff's recommendation, "Changes in the environment and the way wastewater is now treated have negated the need for SCOP (System of Conveyance and Operations Program).

"As such, the city does not feel it is in the best interests of the residents of Las Vegas for the city to continue as a member agency of the CWC, and to collect the user fees from its residents to finance the ongoing operation of the CWC."

Mayor Oscar Goodman was assured by the city's attorney, Brad Jerbic, that the city's withdrawal won't affect the current lawsuit filed by the coalition to recoup the $62 million taken by the Legislature.

"The outstanding lawsuit is a challenge by the CWC to the state's action to take money from the CWC," Jerbic said. "Our withdrawal from the CWC shouldn't affect that one way or the other."

Goodman asked what kind of benefit the city might see if the lawsuit is successful.

Theoretically, the state wouldn't get the money for the state treasury, Jerbic said.

"If that money stayed with the CWC, and the city were successful in withdrawing from the CWC, theoretically we should be entitled — theoretically now — we should be entitled to get back that money we put in before the state tried to move it to the state treasury and those monies that were collected after the state took their action," Jerbic said.

City Manager Betsy Fretwell said that, with a 60-day notice to the other members of the coalition, the city can begin formally withdrawing.

"And others could as well, if that's what they feel they need to do," Fretwell said.

She said the North Las Vegas City Council has an agenda item for its meeting this week to find out the status of the CWC. The Clark County Commission discussed the CWC at its meeting last week.

Jerbic told the council that if the CWC decides to spend money in its treasury before the city has the opportunity to get it back, then it would be difficult for the city to recover those funds.

"If it's spent between now and then, we're going to have a battle on our hands," Jerbic said.

"I'd welcome that battle," Goodman said. "... But the bottom line is this: We've been briefed and debriefed and rebriefed by Mr. Cervantes, as well as Councilman (Steve) Ross, being our representative on the water coalition, and I am convinced with moral terpitude that the need for that coalition has dissipated to such an extent that it really doesn't have any useful function at this point in time."

Goodman said the projects that the CWC originally planned are not going to happen.

"It's costing taxpayers a lot of money to continue the process," he said. "We just don't want any more money chasing this, (which), at one point in time, made a lot of sense, but at this point makes no sense at all."

Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said, as the city's representative on the Southern Nevada Water Authority Board and the Colorado Water Commission, she has asked members of those two bodies what they thought about the CWC.

"They had a goal. They had one project. It no longer exists. It's absolutely ludicrous to continue the existence of a group that doesn't have work to do," Tarkanian said. "And I think it's even more ludicrous for them to say 'Let's look around for something to do' when every day we're slapped in the face, I'm sure, with 100 different things we could do than spend our money. . . I never heard of anything so silly."

Tarkanian said any money coming back from the state should go back to taxpayers.

Before the vote, Councilman Steve Ross, who sits on the CWC board, said the city needs to demonstrate a leadership role in pulling out "to show the other entities we recognize what's going on and what's happening out there in regards to wastewater quality."

"I think this is a significant step in the right direction," Ross said.

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  1. I say send the waste water to California, they can add it to their wash into the sea.