Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 | 2 a.m.
First came the stench. Now it’s the gnats and midges.
Water released into the Sloan Channel from the new wastewater treatment plant in North Las Vegas is making life a little more difficult for those who live near the concrete-lined channel.
Fungus gnats and chronomid midges, both of which live near rotting vegetation and damp areas, are growing in numbers along the channel, where they had never been seen before.
At least Rex Austin has never seen them. He has lived near the Sloan Channel for 52 years on Owens Road. Neighbors who gathered at his yard sale a few weeks ago said the same thing: They’ve never seen anything like it. Even when the temperature dipped into the 30s overnight last week, countless bugs swarmed during the day in Austin’s backyard.
“Sometimes, I’ll open the garage door and the sun is shining, and I’ll see a 3-foot ball of them,” he said.
There are so many dead bugs floating in his pool that “it looks like someone took a big handful of pepper and threw it in the water.”
“I hate to think what it’s going to be like when it gets warmer,” he said.
While treated wastewater released from the North Las Vegas plant seems to be causing the swarms, Clark County is the entity that’s being forced to do something about it because it owns the drainage channel.
Since August, the county’s Public Works Department has gone through the channel every six weeks with a scrubber truck, akin to a street sweeper, to clean the concrete, and every four weeks an all-terrain vehicle drives down the channel, dragging a steel drag mat to scrape off the algae.
It’s not working, though, and county officials admitted they might have to increase the frequency of the channel cleanings.
Response from North Las Vegas city officials will have to wait; they are on vacation this week.
The bug problem adds another layer of frustration to a legal battle between Clark County and North Las Vegas.
The two governments are suing each other over use of the channel. North Las Vegas wants to obtain a legal declaration of its right to use the channel; Clark County is suing because the city is using the channel without the county’s permission. Officials are trying to resolve the issue outside of court, said County Commissioner Tom Collins, in whose district much of the channel passes.
“This doesn’t help things,” Collins said of recent bug complaints his office has received.
Residents began complaining of a sewage-like smell from the channel almost as soon as the treated water began flowing in early summer.
At the time, North Las Vegas officials said they didn’t detect any of the odors disgusting people living near the channel.
Insect clouds might be a little more difficult to dismiss.
In emails obtained by the Sun, the county’s Public Works Department identified the insects as fungus gnats and chronomid midges. Though midges look like oversized mosquitoes, neither they nor the gnats are known to bite people. Staff said the very warm water coming out of the treatment plant is likely the culprit behind what appears to be hearty breeding by the two insect species.
“If the release temperatures were 40 degrees or less (currently average 90 degrees), we probably wouldn’t have this issue,” one county employee said in an email. “Warm water allows for the life cycle to continue in our pest flies. Then when warm air temperatures reach the mid-50s, mating swarms become active. Normally the eggs, larvae and/or pupae would overwinter until spring, but in this cycle it is like spring all the time.”
North Las Vegas had not always intended to use the channel. At one point, plans were to build a multimillion dollar underground pipeline to carry the treated water toward Lake Mead. That plan fell apart with the dismantling of the Clean Water Coalition, which had been collecting money through a sewer fee to construct $800 million in wastewater pipelines.
Without the pipeline, the city and county began to negotiate for the city’s use of Sloan Channel.
The city had offered to pay Clark County $50,000 to maintain and clean the channel in return for a discharge permit. Clark County, though, wanted more. The county’s proposed deal included language that North Las Vegas would not be able to solicit Nellis Air Force Base as a customer for nine years; the base’s wastewater is treated by Clark County.
North Las Vegas didn’t like that deal, nor the way county commissioners derided North Las Vegas for its planning of the $280 million treatment plant. Two days later, North Las Vegas began discharging the water without county approval.