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Solution to water woes may be an ocean away

Instead of looking north for an abundant source of water for future growth in Southern Nevada, should officials be scouting West?

It’s a question readers ask almost every time there’s a discussion of water use in the Silver State. They wonder whether investing in seawater desalination today makes more sense in the long run than tapping into politically untenable and possibly unreliable sources of water from our already parched region. You know, like the proposed pipeline project from White Pine and Lincoln counties and the Snake Valley area of Western Utah.

It’s not a simple issue. It’s taken California the better part of four decades and a record drought to embrace desalination as an option. After weighing cost and environmental concerns, California is finally tapping into a limitless source of water right in its own backyard with the construction of its first $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad 35 miles north of San Diego. Once it’s up and running in 2016, it will produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day from the Pacific Ocean.

It’s considered the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, and if promoters of the practice have their way, it won’t be alone for long. The Carlsbad Desalination Project is the first of several plants in various stages of development. While most of the world’s desalination facilities are in areas where fresh water is extremely scarce, improvements in technology and increased necessity are making them more viable.

Removing salt from sea water is expensive. It’s cheaper to tap groundwater and increase conservation, but as drought becomes more the norm than the exception in the West it seems self-evident that the best possible future won’t be found in draining every reservoir, sucking dry every waterhole, and turning arid land into barren sand.

It makes sense to me to spend a couple billion bucks to create desalination plants on the coast and trade the water produced for water from the Colorado River.

Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger calls desalination a “viable future resource option,” but also notes the challenges ahead. Expense is a key consideration, but so is scale. Carlsbad’s 50 million daily gallons is great, but Southern Nevada’s system moves 900 million gallons a day.

“It’s not a drop in a bucket, but it’s a very small piece of what California will ultimately need for their purposes if they were to embrace desalination as a major part of their water resource portfolio,” Entsminger says.

His figures show desalinated water costing approximately $1,500 per acre foot, about five times the price of delivering water from our local resources. And that doesn’t include construction costs.

While I’ve seen statistics that show lower costs, he’s right when he says, “It’s pretty expensive water.”

Looking ahead 30 years or so, he adds, partnering with California or Mexico might be part of a wise strategy.

Meanwhile, increasing conservation and improving the infrastructure by finishing the third intake from Lake Mead remain priorities.

Price is always a consideration, but expense is a relative term in Nevada. We live in a state whose top political owls thought it was a wise idea to finance billions of dollars to create a high-speed party train from Las Vegas to Victorville, Calif.

Some will call large-scale desalination a pipe dream, but it’s hard to argue cost when the experts have endorsed a rural county pipeline and pumping plan that could cost as much as $15 billion to construct.

In that light, a $1 billion desalination plant sounds almost reasonable.

While I wouldn’t pretend to understand the complexities of our water politics, it’s safe to predict that increasing populations and continued drought are going to put the kind of high demand on our already stressed water supplies that only large-scale desalination and wastewater reclamation will be able to meet.

And the future might not be as far away as we think.

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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