Water For Las Vegas Valley Could Cost Billions - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Investigative Reporter

Water For Las Vegas Valley Could Cost Billions

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Could the Las Vegas economy dry up overnight? A study by the Southern Nevada Water Authority says it could unless billions of gallons of water are imported from rural Nevada.

A massive pipeline project has been proposed and is awaiting approval by the state engineer. But if the plans get the green light, will locals be willing to pay for it?

Are you willing to pay for it? Post your comments on the water pipeline blog.

Imagine digging a trench and installing a water pipeline from the outskirts of Las Vegas, all the way through Clark County, traversing the entirety of Lincoln County and stretching all the way up to White Pine County, nearly 300 miles away.

The trenches are dug over mountains, across valleys, in the heat baked, rock-hard dirt, as far as they eye can see. How much would such a pipeline project cost? Exact numbers are tough to come by. Early cost estimates for a pipeline system reaching out into rural Nevada started at around one billion dollars.

For the past few years, water officials have acknowledged the cost will be closer to $2 billion. The most recent estimates developed for the Southern Nevada Water Authority acknowledge it could cost more than $3 billion.

But the truth is, no one knows what the project will cost. Not yet anyway. "It's still in the stage of talking to the state engineer and what water we can expect," said at Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

Water chief Pat Mulroy says there's no way to accurately gauge the total cost until the state water engineer decides which, if any, of the six rural water basins targeted will be tapped. In addition to the main pipeline, smaller extensions will be built to well sites, whichever ones are approved. It could amount to more than 400 miles of pipes.

Mulroy says the valley has no choice. We need the water not only to sustain growth but for survival itself.

"That's the real driver in this, is to protect the health and safety of residents of Southern Nevada," Mulroy said.

It's not all about growth. But how much are locals willing to pay? three billion dollars is a huge number, and many think the real cost will be much higher.

"That might be accurate for the cost of the pipeline, but there are other costs," said hydrogologist Dr. Martin Mifflin who has spent most of his adult life studying Nevada's groundwater.

He says the project would need hundreds of miles of power lines and the power itself, massive 10-acre pumping stations, wells, infrastructure, maintenance -- a lot more than 2 or 3 billion dollars worth.

In 1992, he wrote a study of the first pipeline proposal and came up with a true cost of $12 billion. It's a different plan now, but selling $3 billion worth of bonds will still cost $12 billion to pay back , he says.

He's not alone.  "They've left some of the mitigation out.  Inflation factors, compensating Native American tribes, the state of Utah, unforeseen environmental damages," said former federal water planner Mark Bird who thinks the ultimate cost could approach $20 billion dollars and that it is purposely being downplayed.

At a minimum, he says, there should be some sort of independent cost analysis.  Pat Mulroy admits that some costs are not included in the $2 billion estimate. Such as the millions of dollars being spent to buy up rural ranches, at prices more than four times their previous sales or millions being offered to rural governments, or the costs of studies, lawyers, and staff time.

But Mulroy says there will be plenty of time to debate the costs.  "When we know and have certainty, there will be a dialogue in this community. The community can always say, no, we don't want to protect ourselves," Mulroy.

The cost estimate of $2 billion dollars was developed by the engineering department of the water authority and Mulroy says her agency has an excellent history of being on time and under budget. The water authority estimates that a $2 billion project would cost most customers about $2 per month, assuming the cost estimates pan out.

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