Friday, May 29, 2009 | 3 a.m.
For decades Southern Nevadans ran businesses and homes off water from shallow wells and springs across the valley.
But in the 1960s the valley outgrew local water resources — springs dried up and homes and businesses began to use Colorado River water.
For most longtime residents the taste of Las Vegas Valley spring water is a hazy memory from simpler times when the city was small and children played on acres of lawn-covered yards.
Wells are far from a thing of the past, though. More than 1,300 pumping sites are still in use — some housing multiple wells. They serve outlying homes, ranches and Strip features such as the Bellagio Fountains.
There isn’t much water in the basin below Las Vegas, and what little is there is frequently pumped, stolen or wasted, experts say.
The Nevada Water Resources Division, for the first time, is fighting back. To start, it’s trying to do away with wells that have no water rights attached.
Southern Nevada is home to dozens of domestic wells that rural homeowners use to pump up to 651,703 gallons of water a year without purchasing the rights. These wells are allowed to operate in Clark County until the municipal water service reaches the properties.
But there are some wells supporting whole communities that some policymakers think should have to move to municipal water.
These wells are an archaic drain on a system that is already strained to the breaking point, according to Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy.
“They’re a relic of the 1950s,” she said. “We spent the period of the ’50s to the mid-60s as a community refusing to build a system to the Colorado River. We didn’t want to spend the money. And so the state engineer issued temporary water rights. And the intent was that once the connection to the Colorado River was built those properties would come off that system and go on to the municipal system.”
These wells operate mostly under the radar — state law allows anyone with a home that has no access to municipal water to build a domestic well after informing the state engineer.
But the state is pushing back, refusing to allow owners of domestic wells in suburban areas to make necessary repairs and has begun forcing them onto the public water system, experts said.
The well owners get help paying for the transition from a fund set up by a ground water management district. The money comes from fees all private well owners must pay to the district each year. The fund pays for 85 percent of the cost of hooking up to the municipal supply.
But converting those wells to public water will do little to alleviate the stress on the Las Vegas Basin. The more pressing problem comes from private wells that pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of extra water from the ground each year.
There are hundreds of wells in the valley owned by residents and businesses that acquired water rights from the state or purchased the rights from previous users. Many have been taking more water than their permits allow.
Local water engineer Phillip Regeski of PREngineering estimates 40 percent to 50 percent of the wells in the Las Vegas area are out of compliance.
“The extent of the overuse is pretty widespread,” he said.
The 2008 figures are still being tabulated, but the Nevada Water Resources Division cites 2005 data that show significant and pervasive water loss from Clark County wells.
More than 500 Southern Nevada wells that year took more than their allotted share of water. About 350 of those wells took more than 325,851 gallons each in a year — considered a serious offense.
Of the 500 wells known to have taken more than the assigned amount of water that year, only 90 were immediately brought into compliance, Deputy State Engineer Bob Coachie said.
But until now, there was little state water managers could do to stem the illegal flow.
Starting in July, the state engineer, who oversees Nevada’s water supplies, will have the ability to fine well owners who take more water than their permits allow.
Legislation passed in 2007 will allow the state to fine offenders up to $10,000 a day and force them to return up to 200 percent of the stolen water. They could also foot the bill for time the water division spent investigating.
Previously, the state engineer had to persuade the deputy attorney general to investigate anyone suspected of taking more water than their allotment and file misdemeanor charges. The process was only undertaken in the most egregious cases and generally took several years.
The change in policy has sent private well owners scrambling to local engineers and water brokers to get their water consumption into compliance.
“It’s a critical time, very critical,” Regeski said. “A big part of what we do is educate the clients because then they understand their options and what they can do.”
It begins with an engineer auditing the well, meter and pipe system at the site. Small leaks in the pipes that run water from a well to nearby buildings can mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year.
Coachie and Regeski said this is the most common source of water loss.
“It just takes one little leak and you can lose a lot of water,” Regeski said. “We can often get them into compliance with changes to the infrastructure without them having to change their lifestyle or business practices.”
When that doesn’t work, Regeski said he encourages clients to install a wastewater treatment system that will allow them to reuse water.
Small wastewater treatment systems are relatively inexpensive — at least compared with a $10,000-a-day fine, Regeski said. A small septic system costs about $20,000; adding a wastewater treatment system costs about $5,000 more, he said.
“It’s not as painful as people believe it is to come into compliance,” Regeski said.
If that isn’t enough to bring a well into compliance, purchasing more water rights may be necessary.
This is the last and least palatable option, Regeski said. Although water rights are available for purchase, they’re going for about $30,000 an acre-foot — or about 325,800 gallons — in today’s market. Water rights acquired through the state are essentially free.
“Our priority is presenting people with workable options,” Regeski said. “There are lots of options to mitigate the overuse situation. Some people think they will have to really cut back on water and dramatically change the way they do business or buy a bunch of water rights. But there are other options.”
Some of the hype is overwrought, he said. The water division has repeatedly said it has no intention of going after minor offenders or businesspeople who act in good faith to use only their allotted water.
“The state is saying that if there’s goodwill between the two and a good-faith effort, then they won’t fine,” he said. “There’s nothing in this state that creates rumors more than water.”
And even now, offenders will get plenty of time to remedy the situation. The water division plans to send out notices of noncompliance in the next couple of months, but the first fines won’t be levied until 2010 or later, Coachie said.
“We have substantial steps before we can fine somebody,” he said. “They have to be given adequate time to come into compliance, even though I’ve been sending out these letters for years.”
First the state engineer must send a warning letter with request for correction and a time frame in which the problem must be fixed.
On wells that serve more than one structure — common in outlying subdivisions — the state water division has to install meters on each house to determine the source of the water loss and which residents should be held accountable.
The investigation is followed up with a hearing after which the water division staff makes a recommendation to the state engineer.
After that, a penalty panel determines the fine and enforcement costs. In the most egregious cases the water division can require a violator to repay up to 200 percent of the water taken.
The fine can then be appealed to an independent committee made up of three people not affiliated with the water division.
Regeski is advising his subdivision clients to begin metering individual houses now so any problems can be dealt with before the state steps in.
The state is hoping the fines will simply do what they were meant to: Force people to pay attention to their wells and live within their means.
“We don’t want to fine a single person,” Coachie said. “We don’t see a dime of that money. It’s not like a municipal parking ticket where it fills the city coffers. We have no financial gain. We’re just trying to get compliance.”