Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2014

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ENVIRONMENT:

What if we couldn’t pump water out of Lake Mead?

A tourist walks into a Las Vegas bar and orders a bourbon and water. The bartender says, “Sorry, you can have all the bourbon you want. No water. No ice.”

OK, it’s a joke, but is it possible that Las Vegas could go dry, in the grips of a colossal drought?

Or, for that matter, is it possible we could lose access to what water we do have in Lake Mead, due to a terrorist attack or some unfathomable sequence of mechanical failures involving the network of pipes and pumps that pull water from the reservoir?

Southern Nevadans get their water from two so-called straws that are capable, with their pumps, of sucking 900 million gallons of water a day from Lake Mead. One has been down for repairs since November and isn’t expected to be up and running until May. What would happen if the other one fails during that time? (A third, deeper straw is under construction but is woefully behind schedule.) There is no expectation that Lake Mead’s water elevation will ever drop so low that the straws are sucking air.

So what about pump failures?

J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, bristles at that hypothetical.

“What if the sky fell? What if an asteroid fell onto the Las Vegas Strip?” he said. “We could go beyond speculation into farcical situations.”

He justified his confidence: There are numerous pumps for each intake, and they’re all underwater and secured.

“I am not going to say that our water system is invulnerable to attack, but it is exceptionally well-protected. We have enough of a safety net for the community.”

But we’ve not been without a close call. In the 1990s, when there was only one straw, the electricity went out on its pumping station and it took three days to restore it. Luckily it was in the winter, the slow time for water consumption in Las Vegas, although then-water authority Director Pat Mulroy called it a “scary time.”

For short disruptions in the flow of Lake Mead water to our faucets, the region would turn to 94 underground reservoirs throughout the valley that hold 900 million gallons of water. These days, some 2 million thirsty Las Vegans and visitors use between 200 million and 600 million gallons a day.

If the reservoirs run dry, the water district could turn to dozens of secured water wells across the valley.

“We could effectively provide water for the most basic needs for months at a minimum using the groundwater wells if all non-essential uses were suspended,” Davis said. “There are portions of the valley that don’t have proximity to wells, so under those ‘catastrophic’ circumstances, some people would have to haul water or we would have to set up truck-based centrally located water refill stations.

“I would be on every TV channel and every media outlet telling people to only use water for cooking and drinking. However, I cannot sufficiently emphasize the remoteness of the series of events required to create such a scenario.”

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