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April 2, 2015

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Despite delays, water authority still banking on ‘third straw’ to deliver water to valley


Jim Wilson / The New York Times

Workers build a water intake tunnel under Lake Mead near Boulder City, Nev., on Sept. 8, 2010. Federal estimates in August showed that Lake Mead could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet, which would trigger a temporary reduced distribution plan to Arizona and Nevada.

Third Straw Construction

A rig of explosives is lifted by a crane during construction of the the Southern Nevada Water Authority's Launch slideshow »

Around 4:30 p.m. on June 11, 2012, a team of a dozen workers toiled 600 feet below the surface of Lake Mead on a project to build a third intake to provide water to the Las Vegas Valley.

As a 1,600-ton, 600-foot-long drill bored its way into the rock bed below the lake, several of the workers followed behind, erecting a series of concrete rings to stabilize the newly excavated tunnel that stretched 24 feet across.

The 134th of an eventual 2,600 rings had been completed earlier in the day when the swing shift crew began work installing the six segments needed to complete ring 135.

As they began retracting the three hydraulic rams that were used to install the ring segments, a loud pop was heard. One of the segments of ring 134 shifted four inches, releasing a jet of pressurized mortar and grout that struck and killed 44-year-old Thomas Albert Turner.

Turner’s death and the injury of another worker in the accident halted progress on the third intake straw and added a stark human cost to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Southern Nevada Water Authority is spending on a project it says is crucial to ensuring long-term access to potable water in the valley, even as the reservoir levels drop in the face of a prolonged drought.

The two-week delay in construction was one of several disruptions that has slowed progress on the 3-mile tunnel that will connect with an intake straw at Lake Mead to transport water to the nearby pumping and treatment stations that deliver water to homes and businesses in the valley.

The $817 million project originally was scheduled to be completed this summer. Now it won’t be finished until 2014, possibly 2015, after several setbacks, including the fatal accident and a series of breaches in 2010 that flooded the tunnel and forced crews to back up and start digging along a new path.

Turner’s death prompted the use of enhanced restraints when installing the concrete segments, but the project’s contractor, Vegas Tunnel Constructors, was not cited for wrongdoing after a three-month investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found the company had no knowledge of the potential hazard because it had never occurred before in similar projects.

Since then, the tunnel boring machine has dug its way farther under the lake at a rate of about 30 feet per day, except for a three-month stretch when the project was shut down for repairs. There have been no reports of additional serious accidents at the site.


When the drill reaches the third intake structure that has already been installed in the bed of Lake Mead, it will provide a buffer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority against the continued drop in the reservoir's water level, which currently sits at 1,108 feet above sea level.

Two intake structures currently draw water from the lake, but the first and oldest could become obsolete if the lake level drops below a 1,050-foot threshold. At that level, water would no longer be able to enter the intake.

If the first intake were to go offline, it would halve the amount of water the authority is able draw from Lake Mead, which accounts for 90 percent of the region’s supply. It could lead to water shortages in the summer months.

Lake levels have dropped nearly 100 feet in elevation over the past decade because of widespread drought, dipping as low as 1,081 feet in 2010 before rebounding slightly since then.

Programs to reduce water consumption by residents have proved effective in slowing the decline, but not enough to halt the slow shrinking of the reservoir’s supply.

“When we look at what consumption has been doing, that’s all customer behavior. When we look at what the lake levels have been doing, most of that is Mother Nature, which is something we don’t have control over,” water authority spokesman Bronson Mack said. “It’s nice that we’ve seen a drop (in consumption), but we still have to protect our access. … As a water agency, we don’t have the luxury to stand idly by and hope. We have to take the action required of us to make sure our community continues to have water.”

When the lake level might drop below the first intake is hard to predict, Mack said, but the third intake, which sits much lower than the other two at 860 feet above sea level, is meant to ensure continued access to water if and when that happens.

The costly project will stretch the water authority’s budget, which has suffered as funding from lucrative connection fees dried up when development stopped during the recession. It also has led to rate hikes for water users, including a monthly surcharge imposed last year. That surcharge amounted to $5 per month for homes with a standard-size water meter, but commercial businesses with larger meters for uses such as fire sprinkler systems said their bills increased by several thousand dollars a month because of the new charge.

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  1. The Water Authority is kinda' like a dog chasing its tail. Build, build and build more homes. So they can get more money. So we drain the Lake eventually. Then we get charged more and more for less water. Way to go, Pat Mulroy and the rest of your dogs.

  2. Planning for the astronomical growth of Southern Nevada clearly was dysfunctional and not happening in past years, and now, to no surprise, there is a critical water shortage, that could have been avoided with effective planning on the parts of the Clark County Planning Commission, and their cronies who made all sorts of money on "development" of millions of homes and businesses that are UNSUSTAINABLE.

    Every one of those members who conspired to profit in such a way should be held liable and brought to justice! Just keep opening more water parks folks.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. So we're going to keep watering lawns in front of houses and businesses until Lake Mead runs dry?

  4. Compared to the Phoenix area, Las Vegas conserves water much better than they do. When they opened the Canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix that opened the area for growth and water usage that was never sustainable. You want to compare lawns and water usage between the two areas, look really close and you will find that the Phoenix area is more wasteful than Las Vegas is with more green areas than Vegas has. Phoenix does have the advantage that they can pull water from the Salt, Verde, and Gila River basins in addition to the Colorado River Project (not counting ground water reserves).

    But both areas should get ready to look at dead grass in their future along with dry swimming pools.

  5. DP: It's not a comparison with another area. The LAKE LEVEL KEEPS DROPPING. Drain it dry BEFORE deserting the landscape?

  6. The water division that Snob is referring to is part of the Colorado River Agreement. California was able to come in and hog the greatest share of the water as at that time (Late 20's and 30's) Southern Nevada and Arizona (Arizona finally signed the agreement in about '47) was primarily a rural area with low population. Arizona was primarily using the water for irrigation in the Yuma area. California built the aqueduct from Davis Dam for the LA area and the Diversion Dam at Yuma for the All American canal to the Imperial Valley. Of course, Arizona followed suit later in the late 70's with the CAP to Phoenix and Tucson.

    As far as the DRAIN IT DRY that you refer to - Once it drops another 33 or so feet (some one correct me if I got this wrong from memory - I think it is 1075 as the trigger), the Bureau of Reclamation declares a water emergency and will cut all states water share by a certain percentage. So then it is going to be up to the SNWA to declare that no watering of lawns and no swimming pools can occur. Similar things will occur in other states I would think but it would be up to them to work it out.

  7. The lake has dropped 14 feet in the last 4 months and summer hasn't even started yet. SNWA better get their stuff together and finish that project soon or Vegas will be dry.

    The water treaty with Arizona, California, and Mexico needs to be reworked this is unsustainable.

  8. Greg overlooks that lake levels always cycle annually...a drop of 14 feet between February and June is completely normal and happens every year. Try comparing lake levels year-over-year for the same date (see below)

    Roslenda just keeps repeating the lie "The LAKE LEVEL KEEPS DROPPING."

    Roselenda - The lake level (compared for same date each year) has not significantly dropped from where it was 6 years ago and is higher than it was for 4 of those years. Look it up.

    June 4th water levels:
    2013 - 1108.14
    2012 - 1119.04
    2011 - 1098.58
    2010 - 1093.70
    2009 - 1096.56
    2008 - 1106.70
    2007 - 1115.61

  9. There would not be a need for a third straw if they dropped the level at Lake Powell and cut back on the flow down stream. All the talk of water shortage is a big fat lie and the water lords won't tell the public the truth. Politics is what controls the water level at Lake Mead not Mother Nature.