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Desalination: Wasteful spending or sustainable future?

The desalination conversation is getting downright salty.

Top officials from the Southern Nevada Water Authority assure skeptics that, despite record drought throughout the West, steadily worsening conditions and rising demand, Southern Nevada has plenty of water for decades to come. Between conservation and reclamation, there’s no need to panic and start hand wringing.

Perhaps it’s the big headlines coming from California, whose Gov. Jerry Brown has called for dramatic conservation efforts, that have you intrigued by the possibilities of large-scale desalination as a way of relieving future stresses on our region’s precious water supply. Perhaps it’s the fact you’re not sold on the water authority’s multibillion-dollar backup plan to pump and pipe water more than 200 miles from rural aquifers to Las Vegas spigots.

Whatever drives your interest in a water future that includes desalination, there’s no shortage of opinions on the subject.

“This option needs to be looked at more seriously,” Anders Sorensen writes. “For the billions of dollars it would cost to build the pipeline to Northern Nevada, the same money could be used to build a desalination plant in California. The water produced from that plant could then be traded with California for its share of Colorado River water in Lake Mead. Or, if folks are bound and determined to build a pipeline, they could build one from the plant to Nevada. Has anyone done the EPA studies on the pipeline in Nevada yet? The plant does not have to be on the coast either, so long as it has a pipe to the ocean from which it can draw water and send back its wastewater.

“The bottom line is the ocean is an inexhaustible supply of water, while the aquifers in Northern Nevada are anything but.”

Desalination is on the mind of Logandale’s Ralph Starita, too.

“I suggested a possible approach on getting started by utilizing mothballed Navy ships,” he says. “The thought is that since they already had a desalination system aboard they could then act as individual desalination plants strategically placed up and down the Pacific Ocean coastline with the costs involved being shared by the Western states that are part of the current Colorado River water group. This method was used back in the ’60s when Castro cut the water for the Guantanamo base and ships were then placed there to provide water to the base.”

Former Florida resident Lillian Heinzelman lives in Las Vegas these days. She’s seen desalination work.

“I lived in Matlacha, Fla., from 1974 to ‘78 and during that time our home had desalinated water. It also included St. James City and Bokeelia. The Pine Island Water Association eventually worked with and sold desalinated water to Sanibel (and probably Captiva) until they were able to build their own plant.

“I emailed Jerry Brown several months ago when the ‘explosion’ came out with my idea of having these plants along the California coast with the idea of pipelines crisscrossing the state and selling desalinated water to other states. Also mentioned were possibly Oregon and Washington doing the same thing. Of course no answer, and they are saying it is too expensive or not an option. They should have been thinking of this about five years ago. It would be cheaper now, of course, and will not be impossible when we just need drinking/cooking water, showers, cleaning our clothes, watering plants, and so forth.”

Cost is perhaps the easiest argument to make against desalination, but then we live in a desert decorated with multibillion-dollar solar and wind farms. Cost is relative.

One person’s wasteful spending is another’s investment in a cleaner, sustainable future.

The conversation continues.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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