Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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All washed up

A desalination plant is not the immediate answer to Southern Nevada’s water needs

Opponents of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to draw water from rural Nevada to supply Clark County — including Gov. Jim Gibbons — have pointed to desalination as the answer.

They say that instead of building a pipeline to pull water out of rural Nevada, a desalination plant could be built in California or Mexico. Nevada could swap the water the plant produces for a larger draw of water from Lake Mead.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

The situation is much more complex than the Water Authority’s opponents make it out to be.

As Phoebe Sweet reported in Friday’s Las Vegas Sun, the Water Authority has been pursuing desalination as part of a broader plan for the long term. But desalination is certainly not a short-term option, given the expense of building and operating a plant, not to mention the environmental issues associated with desalination.

For now, the cost of water produced by desalination is prohibitive. The process requires a tremendous amount of money, and environmentalists note that the demand for more electricity means more power plants, which come with their own set of costs and environmental issues.

Desalination plants also produce brine and disposing of that can be an environmental problem. Trying to build a plant in California would be a difficult — and expensive — task. In California, environmental issues receive considerable scrutiny, particularly by the powerful Coastal Commission, which holds a tight rein on development along the Pacific Ocean.

Desalination certainly is something the Water Authority should be pursuing, but building a desalination plant would not ease Southern Nevada’s reliance on Lake Mead. The current drought threatens to curtail extra water supplies Nevada might otherwise use. As the lake level continues to drop, it is clear the region needs other sources of water that can be tapped more quickly and realistically than desalination.

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