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October 31, 2014

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How Southern Nevada could turn water deficiency into economic boon

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L.E. Baskow

Compliance manager Stan Van Wagenen describes how water samples are handled within the SNWA’s massive testing facility out near Lake Mead on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Southern Nevada Water Authority Facility

Compliance manager Stan Van Wagenen describes the process for using the Vista-MPX machine allowing simultaneous measurement of all elements from parts-per-billion to percent levels within the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) massive testing facility out near Lake Mead on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Launch slideshow »

On a ribbon of road 2 miles beyond Henderson, at the base of the mountains leading to Lake Mead, scientists peer through microscopes searching samples of water for microbes and chemicals.

They’re looking for new ways to clean and conserve water. In the process, they’re also helping to spawn an industry to power Las Vegas’ economy.

The research lab is part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s mission to create technologies that protect the valley’s drinking water. Seven years after the lab launched, the agency’s efforts are growing.

Officials are welcoming water technology companies into the lab. Their hope is the companies can commercialize their technology, spin off new business divisions and create jobs.

“The laboratory is one of the best in the world,” said Rob Renner, executive director of the nonprofit Water Research Foundation in Denver, which has funded more than $2 million of research at the lab. “There are exceptional people, exceptional talent, and it’s also very well equipped.”

Did you know?

Water authority equipment detects trace amounts of contaminants on a scale of parts per trillion. That’s the same as trying to find a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In the long term, economic development officials believe this approach will help them turn one of Las Vegas’ biggest challenges ­— a lack of water — into an economic opportunity. If they’re successful, they will help spawn a new cluster of water tech companies that can help diversify the region’s economy. Globally, water technology is a $450 billion business annually.

Access to the lab is one of the main reasons a California company is considering relocating to Las Vegas. The company developed a new nanoparticle technology to clean water.

“In the past, (companies) had difficulty finding utility partners,” said David Johnson, the water authority’s deputy general manager. “This model provides an opportunity to do that.”

The Nevada Center of Excellence is charged with marketing the lab and recruiting companies to work there.

“Most people make the assumption that (the lab) is strictly for SNWA research,” said Ken Ladd, the center’s interim director.

Ladd said the nonprofit is very close to inking a deal that would relocate the California company to Las Vegas. He declined to name the company because of ongoing negotiations.

Nanoparticle technology is expensive, and Ladd said the cost limits how well it can be commercialized. The California company is working to reduce the costs of the technology, which it would sell to water utilities.

Ladd hopes recruiting the California company is just the start. He and other leaders are following up with executives from 75 companies they met during a June trip to an international water conference in Singapore. Ladd said five to eight were in serious discussions to expand, relocate or do research in Las Vegas.

Research is focused on finding new ways to do everything from detect leaks in water systems to measuring nearly undetectable amounts of pharmaceuticals in the water supply. If needed, the technology eventually can be tested on parts of the valley’s water supply system.

“When we take that to market and say it has been tested at the SNWA facility, it’s like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” Ladd said.

Four areas the lab is investigating

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has partnered with universities, foundations, the federal government and private businesses to research new technologies and tools for managing drinking water. Among the areas the lab is investigating:

Water quality

The water authority works in two ways to improve drinking water: by developing new methods to detect trace amounts of contaminants and by researching new methods to get rid of those contaminants.

One of the most promising areas of research has been nanoparticles, which are engineered to target potentially harmful compounds. Nanoparticles can be designed to target and remove specific contaminants.

The water authority’s lab has been on the cutting edge to develop technology that detects the presence of prescription drug byproducts in the drinking water supply. Trace amounts of drugs stay in urine. Because Las Vegas waste water is recycled, those trace measurements potentially could affect drinking water.

It’s not clear whether such byproducts could be harmful, but water utilities want to know if they are present.

Leak detection

Las Vegas has hundreds of miles of pipes that funnel water to your faucet. The water authority wants to find and repair leaks before lines break.

The agency is researching a sensor that uses complex algorithms and acoustic detection to pinpoint leaks.

Water security

About 90 percent of the region’s water comes from one source, Lake Mead. So water officials are hypervigilant about protecting that supply.

David Johnson, the agency’s deputy general manager, said water contamination is exceedingly rare, but the agency is researching new ways to find contamination earlier.

Environmental impact

Lab research doesn’t focus solely on humans. The agency is studying links between chemicals in wastewater and sexual and developmental abnormalities in fish.

One project looks at the feminization of Chinook salmon in California rivers.

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