Monday, Aug. 22, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Map of Lake Mead National Recreation Area
601 Nevada Way, Boulder City
By some estimates, Lake Mead could rise more than 50 feet by the end of the year, enough to make up nearly half the 120-foot drop that has occurred during 11 years of drought.
Another two or three years of heavy snowfall on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and the melted runoff that feeds the Colorado River could get the lake back where it was before the drought.
Despite this, water officials appear reluctant to even contemplate hitting the pause button on the multibillion-dollar projects prompted by the drought and the region’s once-robust growth — a $700 million to $837 million “third straw” to draw water from deeper in Lake Mead and the $1.2 billion to $3.5 billion pipeline to send water to Las Vegas from eastern Nevada.
Indeed, only Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a member of the Southern Nevada Water Authority board, says it’s time to discuss tabling the costly projects.
“When (the third straw) was initially approved, we were in a different time and place,” Sisolak said. “Since then, development has come almost to a halt.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want to move ahead with the project, I’m just saying that in the current economic climate, it might be prudent to take a breath, step back and evaluate just what our options might be moving forward.”
Not only are the rising lake levels and decline in growth reasons to give the plans a second look, he said, but also the effect the costs will have on residents’ pocketbooks.
By the end of the year, the Water Authority is expected to consider issuing a $500 million bond to finish construction of the third straw.
That project, the largest undertaken by the Water Authority, developed as the Southwest drought deepened. Two intake pipes jut into Lake Mead, drawing the water for homes and businesses in Southern Nevada. But with the lake dropping so fast, the fear was that the uppermost intake would soon be left sucking air, above the waterline.
So the Water Authority got approval to build the third, deeper intake, that would draw water as the lake level fell.
Sisolak said he simply wants to “be honest about this and tell people if we keep going this is what your water rates are going to look like.”
To make that clear, he requested a study, being done by Hobbs, Ong & Associates, to examine rate structures under several scenarios.
“We’re trying to figure out how to do it in the least painful way,” said Guy Hobbs, whose report is due in November. “We’re modeling out what we expect (the Water Authority’s) revenue and expenditures to be, and on expenditures that includes capital debt.”
Also being calculated is potential growth in five, 10 and 15 years. During decades of growth in the Las Vegas Valley, the Water Authority relied heavily on connection fees, paid by developers, for revenue. With growth far from what it was, “we need to re-evaluate that structure,” Hobbs said.
Another component of his report is how rates will look with, and without, construction of the pipeline to rural Nevada.
The Water Authority, however, doesn’t see the third straw as something that can or should be put on hold.
“We look at it as a long-term project that provides some insurance to Southern Nevada,” Water Authority spokesman Scott Huntley said.
But Huntley sounds less definitive regarding the Water Authority’s other big-ticket item.
If constructed, the pipeline to tap groundwater in rural Nevada could stretch about 300 miles and include 400 miles of lateral pipes. It would be large enough to transport 220,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough to supply 440,000 households.
Rural Nevadans have united to fight the project, which they view as a water grab that would doom the region’s environment and economy. Pumping could lower groundwater tables 10 to 200 feet over 200 miles, according to a new federal report.
Since at least 2004, the pipeline has been considered by many to be the Water Authority’s holy grail and it has spent heavily on the project. In 2006, it paid $37 million for 11,800 acres beneath which flows the valuable groundwater.
Despite those expenditures, Huntley said the pipeline plan is “completely speculative.”
“It would only come before the board for construction if we have water shortages,” he said.
But not every Water Authority board member sees it that way, including County Commissioner Tom Collins.
“Look around the country, reservoirs are going dry,” Collins said, making particular note of areas of Texas in drought. “If we can get water from central Nevada for 35 years, it will take at least that long to get through all the bureaucratic hoops to get desalination plants built. But when they’re built, we can wean ourselves off that pipeline.”
“But the pipeline needs to be built.”
If that’s so, Sisolak said, he wants ratepayers to know what’s coming, because billions of dollars in debt will likely fall — at least until the economy turns around and development resumes on a large scale — on the backs of households and businesses.
“My worry is for the ratepayer. Are we going to see monthly bills double, triple?” he said. “People are doing all they can to conserve water already. How high are their rates going to go up? ”